A fortnight of tennis at the 2016 Australian Open culminates Sunday in the men's singles final, as No. 1 Novak Djokovic will look to win his second consecutive and sixth title overall in Melbourne by fending off No. 2 Andy Murray in a rematch of last year's final.
In the 2015 final, Murray faded as the match wore on, losing to Djokovic 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0. Djokovic should face a stiffer challenge this year, with Murray of course looking for a different result this time around.
The match will take place no earlier than 3:30 a.m. ET (7:30 p.m. local time) at Rod Laver Arena, following the conclusion of the mixed doubles final. Coverage will begin on ESPN at 3 a.m. ET, with live streaming available at WatchESPN.
Djokovic is 21-9 all-time against Murray and has won 10 of their last 11 meetings. Murray's lone victory in that span came in the finals of the 2015 Canadian Masters last August. These two are no strangers to each other in Melbourne, much to Murray's lament as this nugget from ESPN Stats & Info points out:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Andy Murray is 0-4 in the Australian Open final, with each of the last 3 losses coming against Novak Djokovic.2016-1-30 14:15:07
Past results don't favor Murray, not that the 28-year-old is letting them influence how he views his chances in Sunday's final, per the New York Times' Christopher Clarey:
I have a very good shot on Sunday if I play my best tennis. I need to do it for long enough to have a chance. I’m aware of that. I don’t think many people are expecting me to win. I have to just believe in myself, have a solid game plan and hopefully execute it and play well. But the previous disappointments — look, it’s one tennis match. Doesn’t matter what happened in the past, really. It’s about what happens on Sunday.
Djokovic has been in typically excellent form at this year's Open, save for a rocky performance in the round of 16 against No. 14 Gilles Simon, a five-setter in which he accumulated a staggering 100 unforced errors.
He's since righted the ship (to put it mildly), beating No. 7 Kei Nishikori in three easy sets in the quarterfinals and playing some truly breathtaking tennis to down No. 3 Roger Federer in four sets in the semifinals.
Are you not impressed?! 53 mins in and Djokovic leads 6-1 6-2. The World No.1 lost just 3 pts on serve in 2nd set. https://t.co/7CEwmdKegG2016-1-28 09:35:38
He was in a way stretching the boundaries of tennis, and it caught the attention of no less than Australian legend Rod Laver. The 77-year-old managed a calendar Grand Slam twice in his career and believes Djokovic is capable of pulling off the feat.
“I think it’s good for the sport if someone does win a Grand Slam. This is not a club that (only) I’m a member of. It’s an open course,” Laver said in Melbourne, per the Irish Examiner's Tom Allnutt and Jim Cook. “I think someone like Novak is I think well on his way trying to accomplish that."
Murray needed five grueling sets to overcome nifty net play and a strong serve from No. 12 Milos Raonic in the semifinals to set up this clash. Djokovic of course presents a much tougher challenge, an all-court player capable of returning the stiffest of serves with ease. Murray does many of the same things as Djokovic, just at more of a demigod level instead of a truly divine one.
ESPN.com's Peter Bodo noted that while both are excellent at returning serve, Djokovic is a tick better:
If either has an edge in the serve-return stats, it's Djokovic. His 62 percent success rate on second-serve points is fourth-best in the event, while Murray is ranked 18th (57 percent).
These numbers might become important because the men play a similar style, are very fit and have no real vulnerabilities that can be exploited tactically. It's impossible to know how the rallies will go, so much may depend on serves and returns, especially at critical times -- if there are critical times. The way Djokovic has played since this time last year leaves that question open to doubt.
Murray might not have the serve to thwart Djokovic. While he did win 79 percent of his first-serve points against Raonic, Murray managed just nine aces total in the match.
Djokovic can certainly handle Murray's power, so the quick points are likely going to be few and far between. This certainly doesn't bode well for the Scotsman, who has one fewer day of rest than Djokovic and needed just over for hours to finally get rid of Raonic.
It may simply be that Murray only has a chance if the wrong version of Djokovic shows up. The women's final on Saturday saw a dominant No. 1 Serena Williams lose to No. 7 Angelique Kerber because she couldn't control her serve and committed too many errors. Djokovic is only two matches removed from a near meltdown against Simon, though he probably won't be attempting too many drop shots in the final.
However, if Djokovic can recapture the magic he displayed against Federer—or come anywhere close to it really—there isn't a player in the world who can compete with him.
Djokovic is a master at keeping himself mentally and physically sharp. There's very little chance he'll slip back into bad habits on Sunday. For Murray, Sunday's final could simply be his latest chapter of anguish in Djokovic's storybook career.
Match stats courtesy of AusOpen.com unless otherwise noted.