Friend Become Rivals
Nearly ten years ago, the first official match between Murray and Djokovic was played at Les Petits A's 12-14 age group, in Tarbes, a town in France where decadent writer Theophile Gautier was born.
In Gautier's book Devil's Tear, God plays a trick to win a bet with Satan. The decadent-looking Murray, the trickier one on court, played his cards right—and still does—in their battle and won 6-0, 6-1 (if Murray's recollection is correct). Djokovic does not remember the score and it is good that way.
They have been friends and rivals since their teenage years, except for a couple of years when they were fiercely competing to get the better of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Djokovic and Murray have been No. 3 and No. 4 most of the last 3-4 years, occasionally swapping ranks and even taking over the No. 2. The Serb occupied the No. 2 ranking half of last year (26 weeks to be precise).
Murray articulated the tension between the friend Djokovic and the rival Djokovic: "When we've seen each other off the courts, I've never been jealous of him. We have always got on well. When we were a bit younger, because we were the two trying to get ahead of Roger and Rafa, we wanting to push each other a little bit. So sometimes the matches were a little fiery, but now we get on very well."
Starting Sunday, on the biggest stage of Grand Slam final, friendship takes the backseat and an official rivalry kicks off between the two, signaling an era some may call "Nolandy" or "Djokory", if not an end to the Federer and Nadal era.
It is in this context, I am in the role of a Djokovic fan and Casper, a regular B/R poster, will be Murray. Like Djokovic and Murray, Casper and I are both friends and rivals.
Keys to win the match for Andy Murray:
-Murray will win as long as he comes out of the blocks running.
-His energy and concentration levels will have to be high from the start.
-His first serve and more importantly, his second serve will have to spin Djokovic out of the court.
-Murray will have to stick to his own strategy. He knows Djokovic and his game more than anyone; they spend so much time together.
-Murray has more of a wider range of shot selection than Djokovic, but the Serb has a harder forehand. Djokovic’s game has very little imagination in it, standard straight forward side to side and back and front strokes. Murray is all about imagination. That being said, Murray will be beaten if he beats himself.
-Murray’s all-round game has more choice selection than Djokovic. His tennis brain is certainly far superior to Djokovic’s in that Murray does not go through the motions. He thinks on his feet and adjusts or improvises.
-Personally I think Murray will be more comfortable with Djokovic on the other side. I’m sure it was Djokovic that Murray won his very 1st title playing. Is that an omen?
-Mentally Murray has won their last three matches. Yes, the last was in 2009; however, it is still a positive mental advantage.
-Murray knows Djokovic needs to have a rhythm; he needs to work off power shots.
-Djokovic’s health has plagued him in the heat of the moment; his eyes are now having problems.
-Djokovic will not get the volume of free points from Murray that he got from Roger Federer's single-handed back hand. Murray will neutralize Djokovic’s forehand by high looping, slow serves, and copious spins. Murray will keep changing his game, to keep Djokovic off his rhythm, and run him around.
-Djokovic is good and fit and has played well in this tourney. In fact he has not really had an off day at the office, yet, but he is no bull dog like David Ferrer is in the running stakes. Djokovic does give up.
-Yes, Murray has still to break his duck. Though Djokovic broke his 3 years ago, he has never replicated it. It should be a good battle.
-It could probably be harder for Djokovic to kill off a friend’s dream than merely fellow tennis player's.
Djokovic leads Murray in their head-to-head encounters, 4-3. However, Djokovic has not beaten Murray on hard court since 2007 in Miami, in which he allowed the Scot only one game. All of Murray's three wins came on hard court, without losing a set, though they were close.
There are two things I noticed in the head-to-head stats: (1) Djokovic has beaten Murray only once after losing first set, (2) Murray has won every tiebreak they have played (3-0).
These stats may not mean much as they have not played for over two years.
Murray also is no pusher, as can be seen from the semifinals stats.
Murray vs. Ferrer semifinal:
60 winners / 293 points = 0.205
60 winners / 152 points won = 0.395
Djokovic vs Federer semifinal
29 winners / 230 points = 0.126
29 winners / 119 points won = 0.244
Murray has a higher average by quite some margin. I’d say that’s a pretty impressive stat.
I like to believe that Djokovic has not been really tested. Djokovic’s draw is especially fortuitous, as the two highest-ranked players nearest him in the bracket are playing dismal tennis. Tomas Berdych has barely won a match since reaching the French Open semis and the Wimbledon final; Fernando Verdasco has done nothing since a quarterfinal appearance at the U.S. Open.
This is a section in which a host of unseeded contenders could make a charge, because even the other seeds in addition to Berdych and Verdasco (Nicolas Almagro, Ivan Ljubicic, Nikolay Davydenko, Richard Gasquet, and Viktor Troicki) have nothing to write home about.
It is the fun that relaxes your mind and prepares you for a big occasion.
This match will be decided on the basis of who can keep his composure, rise to the occasion, and impose his game.
So far, Djokovic has delivered on all three counts.
This is also a match between offense vs. defense. Murray will try to take advantage of Djokovic's pace.
After he led Serbia to historic Davis Cup victory, Djokovic's confidence level has been ten fold. He played a couple of clutch matches in that endeavor and pressure handling ability has been only growing.
With little off-season, his preparation has been the best for this occasion. You cannot go without quoting his embrace of one wise saying:
"But one wise man told me, It's not the will to win that makes a winner, it's the will to prepare. Basically that's a sentence I keep on telling to myself."
Djokovic's serve has returned in a big way. In the last six matches, his first serve has been 70% to Murray's 60%. That's 10% advantage going into this match.
The Serb's forehand has been reliable in offense, helping to produce less errors. Statistically, he has committed less unforced errors than Murray in the six matches, 148-157. That is a strong stat for an offensive player like Djokovic and should be concern for counter-punching Murray.
Throughout his career, Djokovic's backhand has never faced ups and downs.
The medium-paced Plexicushion surface has been Djokovic's home turf. He's comfortable with the surface and it's most suitable for his aggressive game, allowing him plenty of time to choose his shots.
Players who have defeated Federer in Australian Open semifinal historically have gone on to win the title: Marat Safin in 2005 and Djokovic in 2008. This pattern may repeat.
The weather has been cooler this year, despite the forecast of a hot Sunday, and the final is in the evening, favoring the Serb.
Above all, the Serb is having fun off the court, which also has helped the Serb, as can be seen from the picture above.
Murray rarely initiates an aggressive shot, except on the run from wings. He has to put his body in motion to hit a winner. He cannot generate pace from a standing position or from two feet on his sides if he gets low-paced balls.
His mixture of shots will throw aesthetics out of this Grand Slam final, evoking the absence of Federer and Nadal. That may be insignificant, but how many points can he win by junk-balling? Federer also tried to mix up his shots and saw futility.
Murray's defense may fall apart if Djokovic opens up the court and finishes the point in 1-2 punch.
Murray would need to forget the scoreboard in order to stay calm. With the British media thronging into Melbourne since Murray reached the semifinal, he has been reminded of the burden of history—Britain has not won a major title for 75 years. The Scot might yield again under the burden of history.
Yes, the Scot has too many weapons and is a thinker on court. But sometimes, too many ingredients and too much cooking spoil the food.
Stats aside, you may compare the semifinals Djokovic and Murray played. While the Serb has had a comprehensive victory over a much tougher opponent, the Scot had a few hiccups against a 7th seed (Ferrer was close to two sets to love).
In the end, it all comes down to who is mentally stronger to handle a Grand Slam final situation and deliver. My pick is Djokovic in 4.
Should Nadal fans support Djokovic or Murray?
And should Federer fans support Djokovic or Murray?
In my opinion, both Djokovic and Murray are anti-Federer and Nadal sidekicks. The Serb and the Scot have counted Nadal's Davis Cup and Olympic Gold to counter Federer's 16 Grand Slams.
On the political ground, it will be harder for you Federer fans to choose one or the other. Then, the choice has to be on their styles of play.
Join us tonight. Casper and I will be live-blogging to answer any questions.