Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will face off in the quarterfinals of Miami's Sony Open. If recent history is any indication, this will be a grueling battle.
While greater attention has been given to other rivalries involving tennis' Fab Four (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Murray), Djokovic vs. Murray has its own flavor of baseline dueling and gritty warfare. It is part artistry and part brutality, like watching matadors go to work.
And it's very competitive. Djokovic holds an 11-8 career edge, but they have split their last 10 encounters—nine of them important battles during the period Ivan Lendl coached Murray. They have also split four meetings in Grand Slam finals, and Murray capitalized for his two major titles (2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon). Djokovic won the 2011 and 2013 Australian Opens at the expense of Murray.
They have not met since Murray's Wimbledon triumph, and they last met in Miami as finalists in 2012, with Djokovic winning that one.
There's not much separation when these two square off.
Tennis fans have been gushing over the Federer-Nadal rivalry for a decade. It is the modern standard because it has produced 30 Grand Slam titles and features contrasting styles and personalities. No other current rivalry in tennis can match it.
The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has produced more matches, more Grand Slam titles and greater adrenaline. The fascinating thing about this rival is seeing Nadal's forehand strengths countered by Djokovic's backhand efficiency. They play each other with greater energy and machismo than any other rivalry.
But for sheer neutrality, the Federer-Djokovic rivalry provides nice parity. Both players can attack the other, and Federer's variety and serve have a way of slowing down and changing the rhythm to Djokovic's baseline comfort. It's the modern equivalent to Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi in that Federer is the "disrupter" who can dictate his style, while Djokovic looks to get a groove from the baseline.
Murray vs. Federer has also produced three Grand Slam clashes (all won by Federer) and a pair of memorable finals in summer 2012 at Wimbledon and the Olympics in London. Their offensive variety is fun for tennis purists, but Federer generally has a better service defense and superior forehand. He has won more of the big matches.
But for Djokovic and Murray fans, this matchup is a competitive rivalry. They exhibit hustle, speed, defense and plenty of baseline strategy. But there are fans who charge that the matchup is too similar, and that their styles mirror each other. A closer look reveals that there are indeed plenty of differences.
Who has the edge in their next meeting?
The Serbian's Advantages
Djokovic has had the more accomplished career. He has six Grand Slam titles and has spent 101 weeks at No. 1. He has also been the most consistently dominant champion of the past three years, doing his damage on all surfaces. He has pocketed Grand Slams at three venues, except the French Open—where the degree of difficulty has been increased due to Nadal's ongoing red clay dynasty.
King Novak has especially shined on slower hard-court surfaces, like Melbourne, Australia, and he likes Miami. He has won three titles here, including two of the last three.
Much of Djokovic's success here derives from the comfort he has in playing his style. The slower hard courts give his defensive positioning enough time to counter Murray's offense with powerful and precise groundstrokes. And when he does choose to step in to set up a winner, Djokovic can generate the pace and angles that force Murray to race to the corners.
When he is hitting with pace and confidence, Djokovic handles Murray. It's usually on his racket.
His biggest problem against Murray has been complacency. Too often, Djokovic has been content to play at Murray's pace and allow the Scotsman to throw in more slices and changes of pace. It's as if he can be lulled to sleep by his rival's patterns, unless he throws himself more fully into the match.
Djokovic is better when he carries an edge of being challenged. He is ready before the coin toss against Nadal because he knows Nadal will fight for every point. Against Murray, Djokovic often comes out too conservatively and then must fight through his passiveness.
The key for this quarterfinals match is an aggressive mentality from the first point. Mistakes and unforced errors must be expected, but above all he must seize the pace, step into the baseline and rip shots up the line on both wings, when warranted. He must establish his own rhythm, serve well and play with his brand of championship tennis. If so, he will be the winner.
The Scotsman's Advantages
Murray has greater belief against Djokovic than against Federer or Nadal. He is able to play more of his own kind of tennis because Djokovic is also keen on playing the percentages from the baseline. He has a way of taking the urgency out of the first set, settling in and then putting pressure on the Serbian.
His retrieving skills have often taken away Djokovic's safe shots. He prevents the Serbian from setting up winners unless there are more risks through pace and precision. The key is that Murray's backhand can play with Djokovic's backhand. Unless Djokovic pushes the pace, Murray is adept at moving Djokovic sideways and in, at times coercing impatient errors.
Murray's forehand slice can also take away some of Djokovic's pace and angles. It's similar to what Federer can do, but dependent more on resulting errors than setting up winners.
It's important for Murray to serve a high percentage on first serves. Too many weaker second serves allow Djokovic to control the positioning on the court, and then it is usually Murray who will be scrambling to save the Serbian's onslaught.
This might be a more important match for Murray. Djokovic won the Indian Wells title and has cruised rather easily through the early rounds in Miami.
Murray needs a big-match win to jump back into serious conversation with the Big Three. He is moving ahead in his post-Lendl career and needs to impose his own will and belief. A great match here could do wonders moving forward. He will be motivated.
One of these players will be packing his bags and looking ahead. For Djokovic, a loss would certainly set his sights on the clay-court swing in Europe. He has a lot of work to do there in looking to finally topple the Nadal dynasty.
For Murray, it would be another case of playing good tennis against most of the field, but then ramming into the wall of a top player. He has Davis Cup play coming up, but he is not scheduled again until he arrives at clay-court Madrid in early May. A loss in the quarterfinals would also cost him 820 rankings points and drop him down to No. 8 in the world.
There's a little more uncertainty about Murray, but Djokovic is not a lock either. Still, the Serbian looks to be at least a solid favorite.
But once the first ball is tossed in the air, anything goes.