NEW YORK—The first time Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray faced off, they were a pair of scrawny pre-teens calling their own lines. When the pair square off in tonight's BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden, in front of more than 10,000 people (including a chair umpire and linesmen) they will be armed with a deep familiarity of each other’s games—and an appreciation for how their ongoing rivalry has shaped their styles.
"We played each other the first time when we were 11 years old," Murray told TENNIS at today's pre-match press conference at the JW Marriott Essex House. "Our games have obviously changed a lot. We’ve grown up as people as well. I think the one thing that has changed in tennis is the athleticism, and I’ve played against Novak and know what it’s like to be on the other side of the net. He’s an incredible athlete, moves exceptionally well and that [level of athleticism] is something that has changed over the last five or six years since we came on the tour."
Born seven days apart, Djokovic and Murray rose through the junior ranks together, broke into the Top 100 at about the same time, and have met in four major finals. Both 26-year-olds employ former top-ranked players as coaches (Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl) and continue to push each other to evolve. Their rivalry is rooted in another rivalry: Pete Sampras was the Serbian's tennis role model, while Andre Agassi was the Scot's hero. And the fact that both are explosive movers, possess whiplash two-handed backhands, and are creative improvisers means their matches can often come down to the man who masters the margins best.
Djokovic points to Stanislas Wawrinka's surge to his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, Roger Federer's title run in Dubai last weekend, and the rise of young talents as signs of an expanded field in the Grand Slam race.
"What Stan did in the Australian Open shows that there is also players other than the top four that are able to win Grand Slams," said Djokovic, who added that Federer remains a major contender. "Roger played a great tournament in Dubai. He’s a 17-time Grand Slam winner and one of the best players in the history of the game and you can never sign him out... He’s still able to win big tournaments. He’s proven that he played a great event in Australia. Of course Rafa is there and we have young guys like [Grigor] Dimitrov and [Milos] Raonic and [Jerzy] Janowicz and the big servers.
"It’s a very interesting time for men’s tennis at this moment. And it’s just the beginning of the season so it’s still too early to predict who can finish No. 1 and who will win the Grand Slams but I think there is a bigger group of players right now, not just the top four players, who can win Grand Slams."
Weeks after his loss to Wawrinka in last September's U.S. Open quarterfinals, back surgery prematurely ended Murray's 2013 season. The Wimbledon champion believes the break has helped him physically refresh and mentally recharge—and is encouraged that his body recovered from three three-setters en route to last week's Acapulco semifinals, where he lost to Dimitrov.
"[The surgery] was in some ways a help and some ways it was tough. Obviously coming back from surgery is hard," Murray said. "But Wimbledon was mentally quite challenging and I felt a bit flat immediately afterward. I was also having problems with my back for about 18 months so it was something I had to decide: 'Do I put up with this for a few more years with it probably gonna get worse; or do I try to get it sorted and be able to sort of play pain free and enjoy being on the practice court and training again?'
"The first few tournaments back were hard but my body actually feels good now. Last week I played four matches in four days for the first time. I played three three-set matches with some long rallies and woke up the next day feeling good for the first time since the surgery so I’m starting to recover properly."
John McEnroe, who will partner brother Patrick in tonight's doubles exhibition against twins Mike and Bob Bryan before the Djokovic-Murray main event, suggested men's doubles was on life support when he questioned the reason for doubles' existence in December—months after the Bryan brothers' bid for the single-season Grand Slam was denied by Radek Stepanek and Leander Paes at the U.S. Open.
"I’m gonna say it pretty blatantly: It’s never fun reading that stuff. But we’ve spoken about it and cleared the air," Mike Bryan said during the press conference. "There’s not gonna be bad blood between us. It’s tough to compare generations and I don’t think [McEnroe] recognizes doubles [now]—guys poaching, I-formation, ripping groundies—it’s just pretty foreign to him to see that and I understand where he’s coming from."
McEnroe, who can deliver a dig with the speed of a reflex volley, struck back while sitting down.
"Lord knows I have a history in doubles, I loved doubles and playing doubles helped my singles," McEnroe said. "So I find it ironic that somehow they’re trying to put me as some sort of wedge when all I want to do is see the game be healthier and do better in the future than ever. So I find that sort of annoying."
As McEnroe spoke, Murray and Djokovic, seated immediately to his left, both broke into grins suggesting a shared anticipation of the former No. 1 stewing up a rant from a slow boil to scalding heat in a New York minute.
"Andy said in the last five or six years the game has become much more physical and athletic, well it’s pretty easy to take that [to imply] we were slow old farts back in the day when I was the best player in the world; that we were mediocre athletes compared to the athletes of today and that we were crap basically," said McEnroe, scratching at his head as if picking away at an irritant. "And I accept that so the least these twins can do is—God forbid someone says something where we’re looking to improve the sport—they should be able to handle it and they’ve proven to be able to handle it."
"So you’re saying we’re crap? That we should just eat it?" said Bob Bryan while directing a bemused smile toward McEnroe.
"That’s a twisted way of reading that," McEnroe replied. "If you want to read it that way I’m sure it will be in the English papers tomorrow that way."
Mike Bryan, Bob Bryan, Patrick McEnroe, John McEnroe, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic stand for a photo. pic.twitter.com/dCTunyc2WN— Novak India Fans (@NovakIndiaFans) March 3, 2014