After an unpredictable Australian Open that saw teenagers shine and legends of the game struggle, we're left with a final that looks rather familiar in the Aussie sun: Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray.
This will be the fourth time in the last five years that the two 27-year-olds have met in Melbourne and the third time they've faced off in the Australian Open final. Djokovic has won all three of their previous Melbourne matches.
This year, however, Murray is playing inspired tennis, coming off a great offseason with his coach Amelie Mauresmo and showing what appears to be championship form for the first time since his 2013 back surgery. Djokovic, meanwhile, has looked uncomfortable and passive at times during this fortnight, particularly during his 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 victory over defending champion Stan Wawrinka in the semifinal.
Could this be the year that Murray finally gets the best of his rival in Oz?
History tells us he certainly has a shot. Though the Serb leads the head-to-head 15-8 and is currently ranked No. 1 (while Murray is at No. 6), Murray has proved he has what it takes to beat Djokovic on the biggest stages of the sport before.
In fact, Murray won both of his Grand Slam titles—the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon—by defeating Djokovic in the final.
Plus, Murray has been playing with a vengeance over the past two weeks, only dropping two sets—one to No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov, and one to No. 7 Tomas Berdych. He has been serving extremely well, moving around the court freely and, most importantly, playing aggressively.
After Murray's intense victory over Berdych in the semifinals, he spoke with the press about how well prepared he felt for this tournament, via AustralianOpen.com:
[A]fter spending the off-season with Amelie and working on a bunch of things, having a sustained sort of period together, I did a great training block. I worked extremely hard physically in the off-season. ... I worked well to give myself the opportunity to play like this. The way that I feel today compared with how I felt after losing in four sets last year [to Roger Federer in the quarterfinals], I could barely move at the end of the match because I was so sore and stiff. I felt strong at the end today.
Murray had a very strange 2014 season, one that made some question if he'd ever find his way back to a major final again. After having his back surgery in late 2013, he started the year noticeably unfit and unsure of himself.
When his coach Ivan Lendl left him in March, Murray's struggles got even worse—in fact, last year he didn't beat a Top 10 player until defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 10, in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and didn't make a final until the Shenzhen Open in late September.
Last June, Murray raised more than a few eyebrows when he appointed the Frenchwoman Mauresmo, a two-time Slam champion and former No. 1, as his coach. There were very few female coaches on the women's tour, let alone on the men's tour, and it was unprecedented for a top male pro to hire a former top female pro as his coach.
There were a plethora of misogynist critics who claimed that a woman couldn't help Murray, and many further questioned the partnership when Murray didn't have instantaneous success.
However, despite the incessant criticism, Murray stuck with Mauresmo. Not only has that decision paid off with drastically improved fitness, form and tactics, but Murray has become an outspoken champion for women in sport along the way.
Meanwhile, as Murray has been going through extreme ups and downs, Djokovic's path over the last year has been much steadier. While he's not in his devastating 2011 form anymore—that was virtually impossible to sustain—he has remained at the top of the rankings and has been regularly contending for majors.
With coach Boris Becker by his side, Djokovic has been cruising through his very straightforward Australian Open draw, winning every match in straight sets until his notably lackluster win over Wawrinka. And while his form in the semifinals was certainly dumbfounding, be careful about reading too much into it. After all, he has won the Australian Open title four times, including three of the last four years, so he knows how to play his best Down Under.
Plus, Djokovic is no fool—he knows that Murray has been playing well and that he has to bring his best tennis if he wants to win his eighth Slam.
Murray and Djokovic were born just one week apart, have known each other since they were 12 years old and play a very similar style of tennis, built around great defense and agile movement. Their similarities are what make their rivalry so unique, especially in the landscape of the Big Four.
That's why it's so crucial for Murray to be fit and confident like he has been all tournament. He needs to be able to stay with Djokovic from the baseline in rallies that are sure to be long and grueling, and yet still have the mental and physical strength to pull the trigger and go for the winner when he gets the chance.
If Murray can do that, and if Djokovic is playing as passively as he did against Wawrinka, then Murray should cruise to victory. Of course, we've already established that it's more likely that Djokovic's form will be much improved Sunday. In that case, Murray needs to rely on his patience to withstand the inevitable stretches of Djokovic brilliance and use his strength to gain control of (and put an end to) rallies on his own terms.
Murray also needs to keep his negative emotions and bad body language in check, because he can waste a lot of energy with theatrics in five sets. Against a guy like Djokovic, there is no room for that.
If Murray can keep himself together and remember to play aggressively when he can, he has good chance to turn the tables on this matchup Down Under.
No matter what, on Sunday, another chapter in this mirror-image rivalry will be written. Murray just has to hope his offseason work was good enough to reflect a first win over Djokovic in Melbourne, and therefore his first Australian Open title.