The best of the rest: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Andy or Novak? Murray Mania or Nole Nation?
If you cannot immediately answer, you are not alone. There is no doubt that these questions lack the cachet of "Roger or Rafa?" and "Nadalite or Fedophile?". But despite the lack of an intense rivalry, the phrase "Murray and Djokovic" resonates through the tennis world time and again.
They form the connecting bridge between the immortal top two and the rest of the ATP, and are treated as such. It has almost become difficult to mention one without the other.
"Will Murray or Djokovic win a slam this year?"
"Can Fed keep fending off the younger likes of Djokovic and Murray?"
"Who is in Rafa's half, Murray or Djokovic?"
They are treated as one and the same, and for good reason. They are both 23. They both love hard courts. They are both clearly inferior to Roger and Rafa, yet clearly better than everybody else (an injured Juan Martin Del Potro, notwithstanding).
They both tease with monster potential, always on the brink of becoming the next big thing, yet never quite get there. Because of this, media and fan perception of them gravitates in similarly drastic fashion: they are either the future of men's tennis or disappointing talents without the makeup to put it all together; either phenoms on the brink of multi-slam careers or "kings of the three setters" destined to come up short when the stakes are highest; either beacons of a younger, tougher generation or dissatisfying examples of how Fed and Nadal never face any worthy competition.
They even play somewhat similarly, with great return games, brilliant defense, consistent and diverse ground-strokes, but a lack of elite offensive power and aggression.
Yet, for all their similarities, rarely do fans debate over whom is better like they do with Nadal and Federer. So, who is the real number three?
Djokovic fans may scoff at this comparison, and understandably so, for Novak has been the more accomplished player to date. He won the 2008 Australian Open while Murray remains slamless. He has reached three major finals to Murray's two and nine major semifinals to Murray's four. He's won 18 titles to Andy's 16. He's won a Masters Cup, Murray has not.
The rankings tell a pro-Djokovic tale too. In fact, since the beginning of 2005 (the year Murray turned pro), Djokovic has been ranked higher than Murray for 211 out of 275 weeks. The two haven't exactly traded the three and four spots as much as you might think either. Out of the 79 weeks in which the Murray/Djokovic tandem has occupied the third and fourth rankings in some order, Djokovic has been third for 62 of them. Djokovic has also done a better job at taking advantage of the rare Federer/Nadal slip up to briefly nab the two spot, as he has occupied the second rank for 24 weeks to Murray's three. As a matter of fact, Murray continues to lose the rankings game, as Robin Soderling has snuck up to seize the number four spot heading into Melbourne with his win in Brisbane this weekend.
Nole also holds the edge when it comes to surface diversity. Both clearly make their living on the hard stuff, with 29 of their combined 34 titles coming there. But while Murray has only marginally outperformed Djokovic on grass (one title to none, with their Wimbledon records being a virtual dead heat), the clay court comparison is a blowout for the Djoker. Djokovic has won four clay titles, including a Masters shield win at Rome in 2008, while Murray has never even reached a clay final. Novak's Roland Garros credentials are also much more impressive, with a 21-6 record and two semi-final appearances to Murray's pedestrian 9-4, one quarter-final resume. Quite simply, Djokovic confirms his hard-court success on the other surfaces more often than Murray.
The comparison is not strictly a one way street, however. Murray has six Masters 1000 shields to Djokovic's five despite Novak having made it to four more finals. Murray has also been coming on a bit stronger over the last few years. While Nole certainly came of age earlier, breaking onto the scene with an elite 2007 as Murray struggled to find his way, the scales have tipped towards Murray since. From the beginning of 2008, Murray has won 13 tournaments to Djokovic's 11, with double the amount of Masters shields to his name in that time. Of course, despite this trend, Djokovic still holds the trump card for this time frame: the 2008 Australian Open trophy.
The Head to Head
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Djokovic/Murray comparison is their lack of history. Often on opposite sides of draws, the duo has demonstrated a shocking difficulty navigating their respective brackets at the same tournament. They have met only seven times, the first coming in 2006. To put this into context, Federer and Nadal, two guys that don't exactly spend much time on the same sides of draws themselves, have met 19 times in that time frame.
They have also never met at a slam, a stat that says more about the dominance of Nadal and Federer than it does about anything else, really.
But in the few times they have met, the results have been a microcosm of the Murray/Djokovic analogy. Predictably, six of the seven meetings have come on the hard courts of Master Series events, where they have split 3-3. Even more predictably, Djokovic smashed Murray in their only clay court encounter, 6-0, 6-4. The trends within the head to head have also been somewhat indicative of their career trajectories. Djokovic romped Murray in their first four meetings, only losing one set along the way. But Murray has taken over in the last three matches, winning each in straights, though requiring three tiebreakers to do so.
Slight edge, Djokovic.
What has been surprising is the style of play demonstrated in these head to head match ups, as they simply do not produce the constant flow of lengthy, battle of attrition rallies that one would expect from two guys with such uber-consistent ground games.
Rather, they display a startling contrast in styles that helps put these two players in proper perspective. Murray, as always, plays a conservative, defensive style of baseline tennis against Djokovic, garnering most of his points from incredible counter-punches and passing shots, as well as a steady dose of quick points off his sturdy, yet unexciting first serve. Djokovic, however, swings away so hard and so often from the ground against Murray that you almost mistake him for Soderling or Berdych. He also approaches the net with astounding frequency, unwilling to concede the advantage that his crackling ground strokes have given him in the rally.
The contrast provides a level of tennis that is sometimes jaw-dropping and sometimes choppy. When Djokovic prevails, both in points and matches, it is because he just blows Murray off the court, crushing winners with abandon from neutral points in rallies and pursuing his penetrating fire-crackers with quick advances to the net. Murray, on the other hand, triumphs by laying back in the weeds and waiting for Djokovic to "not do enough". He baits Djokovic with a monotony of non-committal ground strokes until Djokovic has had enough and smacks an approach shot before coming to the net. But Djokovic does not have the transition game of Federer, and often plays right into Murray's hands with decent, yet reachable approach shots that set up Murray for jaw-dropping counter-punches. Nor does the Djoker have the net game of McEnroe, and he often either flubs volleys for errors or does not get enough accomplished with them, again setting Murray up for impressive passing shots.
Both display good, not great, service games, with Murray typically amassing a few more points directly traceable to the serve than Djokovic.
The dichotomy in these encounters is telling. Djokovic, though a very capable offensive player in his own right, goes at Murray with a sense of hyper-aggressiveness that you would never see him try against the other top dogs. The fact that Nole swings away and advances to the net so much against the Muzz goes to show you just how conservative and defensive Murray really is. Djokovic is aggressive, but not that aggressive.
The fact that Djokovic is able to rally with Nadal in epic stalemate fashion yet also attack so convincingly when the situation warrants goes a long way in explaining his success. Murray lacks this versatility, and though a great returner and brilliant counter-puncher, he puts the match on the racket of his opponent too often, a strategy that tends to fall short against the world's best in huge matches. This is not to say Djokovic does not become overly passive and get blown off the court by big hitters in important matches sometimes himself, but, unlike Murray, he has the ability and willingness to grip it and rip it on a consistent basis.
Slight edge, Djokovic.
Against The Greats
Perhaps the reason that Murray is able to insert himself into the conversation with Djokovic, despite an inferior resume, is his record against Nadal and Federer. In an age so dominated by two immortal players, it only makes sense to evaluate the field's ability to finally break through by examining their performance against these greats. In this regard, Murray has an unmistakable leg up on Djokovic.
Murray has given Federer fits, leading the head to head 8-6, while Federer has owned Djokovic in their encounters 13-6. While neither have been able to outdo Federer at the majors (Murray is 0-2, Djokovic is 2-4), Murray has clearly demonstrated a better ability to disrupt Roger's rhythm.
The same can be said, at least comparatively speaking, with regard to Nadal. Rafa has owned both, beating Djokovic in 16 of their 23 encounters and downing Murray in 9 of 13 matches. But while Rafa has completely dominated Djokovic at the slams, going 5-0 across three different surfaces, Murray has proven to be one of the only ways to de-rail the Nadal Express at majors, winning two of five matches and going 2-1 on hard courts.
Thus, though neither have exactly toppled the two-headed dragon that presides over men's tennis, Murray has proven himself to have a better chance.
So, who is it? Andy or Novak? Nole or Shaggy? The Djoker or The Muzz? None of the above?
Considering the above, this author picks Djokovic. What about you?