Novak Djokovic Should Be Favored over Andy Murray to Win 2017 Australian Open

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2017

Novak Djokovic Should Be Favored over Andy Murray to Win 2017 Australian Open

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    The drive for the 2017 Australian Open is headlined by the Novak Djokovic-Andy Murray rivalry.

    They have never been closer in competing for the top of tennis and as near-equals to win the next Grand Slam title. Djokovic has been the best player of the decade, and Murray is ranked No. 1 after supplanting the Serb.

    So who is the real favorite? On one side, we have King Novak, who came off an epic Grand Slam streak but stumbled down the stretch and let the crown slip from his head.

    Then there's the super Scot, who drove back the ATP and climbed to the pinnacle of tennis for the first time in his career. He's never been tougher.

    Suppose we enlist a jury at a tennis court of judgment: Djokovic or Murray? There, we can break down the the evidence from an interrogation of seven parts.

Exhibit No. 1: Head-to-Head History

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    If match results matter, then 36 head-to-head games must be heard. Djokovic has a whopping 25 victories, but Murray makes it a closer margin in finals, trailing the Serb 11-8.

    Most importantly, Djokovic has a 5-2 advantage in major finals, the most critical and overwhelming result being a 4-0 shutout in the finals of the Australian Open (2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016).

    Add in their last major final meeting, a four-set victory by Djokovic at the French Open, and this is no contest.

    Verdict: Heavy advantage to Djokovic

Exhibit No. 2: Australian Open Venue and Playing Surface

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    In 2008, the Australian Open replaced the stickier Rebound Ace surface with Plexicushion, a hard-court surface that produces a bigger bounce and more time for baseliners.

    It was hardly a coincidence that young Djokovic got his breakthrough with a huge semifinal upset over Roger Federer en route to winning his first major.

    All told, Djokovic has won six of the nine championships on Plexicushion. It plays perfectly into his skills, giving his backhand the high bounces he loves to groove and the right blend of patience and time to control the baseline. He's the perfect hybrid of offensive punch and defensive genius on this surface, able to neutralize big hitters and overpower fellow grinders.

    Murray's 45-11 record at Melbourne is not too shabby even if it pales next to Djokovic's 57-6 mark. He is a worthy pick to break through on a surface that rewards defense, even if it robs him of that extra power to run Djokovic to the corners.

    He's not as dominant as Rafael Nadal on French Open clay, but Djokovic is the greatest player on Melbourne's Plexicushion, and he has proved he can win marathon matches and endure the summer heat.

    Verdict: Heavy advantage to Djokovic

Exhibit No. 3: Recent Play and Momentum

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    When Djokovic's play dropped following the French Open, it wasn't Murray who did the most damage.

    The ATP features the best players in the world, and not even Djokovic can mail in wins. Former coach Boris Becker said that the Serb did not practice as hard in an interview with Sky Sports, and the former world No. 1 admitted he struggled to be motivated. Add in a few injuries, and he really hasn't been the same player who dominated 2015.

    Murray might have gained greater confidence with Djokovic's drop, and it's hardly surprising that he found more stability and titles since his reunion with coach Ivan Lendl. As the top-ranked player, the Scot is supposed to get the more favorable chances at a great draw.

    It is also important to understand that it may not come down to Djokovic vs. Murray.

    Depending on the draw, Djokovic has been more vulnerable to upsets with his skittish play. Yes, he defeated Murray for the Qatar ExxonMobil Open title in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday, but he had to survive five match points over Fernando Verdasco to get there. And he would dread another match against powerful nemesis Stan Wawrinka.

    Credit also to Murray for being locked into his game. His precise shots and returns have been at his best with a recent 28-match winning streak. He has been the more consistent star since July.

    Verdict: Solid advantage to Murray

Exhibit No. 4: Offensive Control

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    The great thing about Djokovic's tactics in the Doha match was his aggressiveness behind his groundstrokes. He didn’t just trade blows against Murray’s rock-solid defense but charged the net 35 times to win 70 percent of those finishes.

    "You have to construct the point well and find the right time to approach, but you need to come in," Djokovic said, per ATP World Tour. "That controlled, aggressive style of play is the way to win."

    Further proof? How about Djokovic's masterclass performance over Murray in the 2013 Australian Open final when he finished with 35 points against the Briton’s nine points at net. When the Serb's strokes hug the lines and create pressure, he is the one more likely to control a winning destiny.

    Murray's best success comes when he can run Djokovic to the corners and force him to keep playing more shots. It can have a wearying effect on the Serb, as it did in the last match of the 2016 World Tour Finals.

    Verdict: Slight advantage to Djokovic

Exhibit No. 5: Defensive Control

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    Djokovic has often been considered the best returner in the history of tennis; just add in his ability to produce incredible offensive bite from tough positions.

    Murray is not as creative on defense, but right now he is the better retriever. Perhaps it's his added desire, but there is simply no slowing him down in his mad pursuit to return every ball. It's a glimpse of what it must have been like to try to outgrind the legendary Bjorn Borg.

    Plus, Murray's defense could be enough to force any of the other stars to press too much and make unaccustomed errors. He has dominated the likes of Nick Kyrgios and Milos Raonic in recent matches because he can keep playing ball all the way to the end against their more impatient games.

    Verdict: Slight advantage to Murray

Exhibit No. 6: Mental Toughness and Confidence

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    For years the Serb held a monopoly of mental toughness, at least second to Nadal's red-clay exploits. He always looked like he could outsprint Murray down the stretch of any big matchand winning breeds confidence.

    Which is why Murray had the upper hand with these attributes when he saw off Djokovic in the World Tour Finals in November.

    After the match, Djokovic said he had "no serious chance." It was a reflection of the fragile unease he had through the summer and autumn doldrums and an impending coaching change.

    But the Doha win saw Djokovic emerge with extra competitive flair and purpose. It clearly restored a lot of that former confidence and may have planted just a little doubt in Murray's head that could prove decisive if they meet in the final.

    Verdict: Even

Exhibit No. 7: Legendary Potential

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    Even with Murray's rise, he isn't a dominant champion the way his Big Three rivals were. He is currently the most consistent player with fewer holes or concerns than Djokovic at the moment. It's just that he needs to be at his best and have a few things break his way, like a friendly draw and a key upset.

    Djokovic’s A-game is better, and if he gets through the first week easy enough, he could pick up like a hurricane. He loves to win championships and knows how to rise up through tough circumstances.

    In recent years, the Serb had to beat back the popular crowd support behind Federer. He also showed his mettle in getting to the 2016 U.S. Open final despite aggravating injuries that would have cut down anyone else.

    If the money's on the table and it means another legendary moment, Djokovic is the more likely star to deliver. He has revitalized a lot of his hunger while looking to chase rather than hold back Murray. He is looking to redefine the meaning of redemption.

    Verdict: Solid advantage to Djokovic

Final Verdict

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    The jury has weighed the evidence in seven parts, and the score shows a 4-2-1 tally for Djokovic.

    He's the defending champion on his favorite court. He might be more determined, in the short term, to show his former coach and the world that he is the best and still Murray's big brother in the rivalry.

    Give Murray his best chance to finally win the Australian Open, if the Serb is down, but a motivated and in-form Djokovic is the greater player.

    Djokovic still has to answer questions about his loss of dominance in recent months, but he may not be that far off his next major title. Until proved, that's our most likely scenario.

    Verdict winner: Djokovic