Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory over Novak Djokovic was more than a landmark victory for the pride of Great Britain. While the victory could be termed a mild upset over the World No. 1, few tennis experts would have predicted an impressive 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 knockout.
The straight-sets sweep is the undercard story that may have altered the landscape of men’s tennis. Djokovic is seeking his third year-end No. 1 title and has been the consensus pick as the overlord of tennis. Now Murray has stepped into the ring and delivered his own punches.
If their showdowns were formerly a subplot to the tennis world, it sets up now to be the next great rivalry in men’s tennis.
Rivalry Growing Pains
Djokovic and Murray are both 26 years old and at the peak of their careers, but it has only been recently that their paths have crossed as the best players in tennis. They have each experienced a lot of growing pains while maturing into champions.
They were once whipping boys to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who had created an almost impossible rivalry standard. They battled and took their lumps as Federer and Nadal combined for all but two Grand Slam titles from summer 2005-2010.
Djokovic broke through first, defeating Federer on his way to capturing the 2008 Australian Open title, but would need three more years before climbing to the top of men’s tennis. This began as he defeated Murray at the 2011 Australian Open on the way to three more Grand Slam titles and the No. 1 ranking.
Meanwhile, Murray had to overcome what was perceived to be a punchless forehand and a lack of mental toughness. His alliance with new coach Ivan Lendl in 2012 was the turning point, helping him soar to new heights with a gold-medal victory in the Summer Olympics. He had to defeat Djokovic and Federer to gain this prize and confidence in winning big matches.
Now their rivalry is no longer second fiddle to Federer and Nadal. They have battled each other in three of the last four Slam finals, with Murray victorious at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. While many wondered if Murray could keep up with Djokovic, he may have proven himself to be the better player.
Trying to Catch Fedal
The Djokovic-Murray rivalry has been slow to warm up to many tennis fans because of the looming shadow cast by the Federer-Nadal (Fedal) rivalry. The Fedal fans are slower to accept greatness after their heroes battled at the top for over five years. That’s a tough act to follow.
Furthermore, the Fedal rivalry provided greater contrast. Federer was the cool-headed, creative and beautiful-shot-making maestro. Nadal was the hot-blooded, relentless left-handed warrior. They were an easy ticket to bill for the entire sportsworld: Roger vs. Rafa needed no other promotion.
Djokovic-Murray is more of a blue-collar matchup. They both employ their talents from beyond the baseline, grinding away at their opponents and retrieving difficult shots. They are the best returners in tennis, able to force opponents into errors and find opportune winners. Both are solid servers, but reluctant at net.
Are their styles too similar to be an aesthetically pleasing rivalry? Is this good, but boring tennis?
They must also stake out more turf for newer fans. As long as Federer and Nadal are still playing, Fedal fans will cross their arms and watch with cool detachment. Battling Federer or Nadal is also battling the rich history of tennis past. Many do not wish to see Djokovic and Murray claim the majority share of this Golden Age of tennis.
Do they have the rivalry charisma and magnetism to appeal to the sports world?
Djokovic is an engaging and genuine personality. He will speak his mind about his game and his opponents and has occasionally clowned around with impersonations of his fellow ATP competitors. He will applaud his rival’s good shots. He fights back from adversity with a never-say-die attitude.
Murray is more reserved. He used to scowl and swear a lot more, but has controlled more of this as he has won bigger matches. He is not the every-man image of a hero, a bit scruffy and lean, hungry-looking and irritable.
Recently, fellow pro Ernests Gulbis opined that tennis rivalries need more fire, according to ESPN.UK: "That's missing in tennis, where everything is clean and white with polite handshakes and some nice shots. The people want to see broken rackets and hear outbursts on the court"
Murray's response to Gulbis shows that he will not likely add theatrics to fuel a rivalry:
To be honest, over the years I have found it difficult to open up and be a bundle of laughs in press conferences or interviews.
I always try to give honest answers, but they are fairly boring so I don't have to deal with the aftermath of any scandals.
Jump Aboard the Rivalry Train
There is plenty of room aboard this rivalry train, and it figures to speed off into new territory. They have established parity, each knowing he can beat the other. Djokovic recently acknowledged the difficulty of their rivalry in Boston.com:
We know each other since we were 11 years old. On and off the court, we have lots of respect for each other. Always very fair, very honest relationship. Now we are big rivals and it’s difficult. ... So we don’t get together and have dinners and parties, but we definitely always chat and remember the fun days we had as juniors.’
They have stared each other down and flexed their muscles. They must go through each other to win Grand Slam titles. There is every likelihood that this will only grow as they look to challenge each other in the future.
Is this the next great rivalry? Maybe the question should be how great this rivalry can become. If Federer, Nadal, Juan Martin Del Potro or anyone else wants a Grand Slam victory, they will have to go through Djokovic vs. Murray.