MELBOURNE—Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray may not be a network executive’s dream, and it may or may not be the future of men’s tennis. But it is the final that make sense here and now. By here, I mean on the medium-paced hard courts of Melbourne. By now, I mean now that these two junior rivals who were born a week apart have reached the ripe age of 25, and the peak of their powers.
Djokovic and Murray will contest their second straight Grand Slam final, and their second Australian Open final in three years. They’re currently ranked No. 1 and No. 3, but could be 1-2 before long. They know each other well—today Djokovic gave us his memories of Murray at age 11: "He had a lot of hair," and "was quite pale." (Some things don't change, do they?) They’ve already played 17 times as pros, seven times in 2012 alone. Djokovic leads 10-7 lifetime, and was 4-3 against Murray last year. They split their last two matches at Slams, each of which went five sets.
So while you may miss Roger Federer and/or Rafael Nadal, this one should be competitive, as well as an exhibition of the best that tennis has to offer in the here and now. There’s also a little (semi-obscure) history to be made. Djokovic will attempt to become the first man in the Open era to win three straight Australian Opens, while Murray will try to be the first man to win his maiden major and immediately follow it up with another.
Here’s a four-point breakdown of what we might see.
Who had the more impressive semifinal showing? Djokovic’s 89-minute blowout of David Ferrer was hard to top, but Murray’s performance, in which he came a few points from winning five straight sets from Federer, came close. Each arrives in the final having been seriously tested once—Murray by Federer, Djokovic by Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round. Each also appears to be peaking at the right time; Djokovic and Murray both played their best tennis of the tournament in the semis.
If one player has upped his level from last year, it’s Murray. He looks stronger and faster, and he’s serving as well as he ever has. But Djokovic still carries the confidence of having finished 2012 as the clear No. 1. He’ll also have had 24 hours more rest than Murray. Couple that with his short semi and Murray’s four hours on court with Federer, and Djokovic should have an advantage if this match goes long. But as we’ve seen so far here, a day of rest, which Murray will have, can make a player pretty close to brand new again.
One variable: The after-effects of Djokovic’s semifinal performance. You might think that his high level against Ferrer will carry over to the final, but his play on Thursday was partly a product of his supreme confidence against Ferrer—he looked utterly sure of victory from the start. Djokovic won’t have that swashbuckling confidence in the first set against Murray. If Novak doesn’t play as well, will that frustrate him? Or, if he does win the first set and relax, will he find that scary groove again?
As I wrote above, there wasn’t much between these two in 2012. Djokovic won four times, Murray won three; they split their five-setters at Slams; and while Novak won their last two contests, in Shanghai and London, in the first match he had to save match points, and the second one went to 7-5 in the third set.
On the one hand, Djokovic did win both times, which could be seen as a sign for tomorrow. On the other hand, through the years these two have tended to go back and forth in the winner’s column. This might make you think it’s Murray’s turn to have a little good fortune at a crucial moment.
In my opinion, the one factor, history-wise, that could make a difference in this match is Djokovic’s loss in the U.S. Open final. Novak is No. 1, he’s used to being No. 1, he likes being No. 1, but if he loses to Murray tomorrow, he’ll be a No. 1 without a current major title to his name. Worse, he’ll have come up short to the same lower-ranked rival two straight times in the matches that are supposed to define the careers of top players. That sounds like a motivating factor to me.
Of all of the various match-ups between the Big 4, Murray vs. Djokovic offers the least stylistic contrast. Both men are defenders and runners and counterpunchers at heart. Between them, they define a lot of what we think of as the style of modern men’s tennis.
Their face-offs are full of long rallies and frustration on both ends—each gets on the other nerves with his retrieving and returning skills. My favorite of their matches from 2012 was the Shanghai final, where Djokovic saved match points to win in three sets. Their three-out-of-five-setters were messier, stop-and-start, break-filled wars of attrition that caught fire only sporadically. Tomorrow is a chance for Djokovic and Murray to stamp themselves in the public's mind as rivalry to watch.
We can be pretty sure of what we’re going to get from Djokovic. He’s won this tournament the last two years, and he’s playing in his seventh final in the last nine Grand Slams. He came out flat against Wawrinka a week ago, but that should help him guard against another slow start Sunday. At Flushing Meadows last fall, he was bothered by the wind, but he’s never looked anything less than comfortable in Rod Laver Arena.
As for Murray, he’s also becoming an old hand at big finals. Counting the Olympics, this is the fourth in a row that he’s reached. The big variable for him, and the biggest in the match, will be his serve. Murray's 21 aces gave him a serious lift against Federer. Will he be able to repeat that performance? The serve is the least predictable stroke from one match to the next. If he does serve well, will Djokovic, the best returner in the game, be able to neutralize it in a way that Federer couldn't?
These are the questions. Only Muzz and the Djoker can give us the answers on Sunday. I’ll take Novak in five.