ONCE upon a time, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were two carefree young lads with big dreams.
Just a week apart in age, they toured the junior tournaments together, did their level best to beat the living daylights out of each other on court (and Murray usually won in those days) and did what any other 12-year-old boys would do in their spare time.
Now, 14 years later, they stand toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball, across the Centre Court net. The biggest prize in tennis awaits the winner; bitter disappointment is lurking in the shadows for the loser. And in between them stand 18 previous meetings on the professional tour, three of them in major finals, and a lifetime of memories and experience.
In the old days, they could dream together of what might be. They could be friends and rivals at the same time – they could even have their fallings out and makings up – but that was when it did not matter much. Now it matters more than ever and the matey friendship has been replaced by mutual respect; the two best men in the world are developing a rivalry to match that of Federer and Nadal and there can be no room for emotion or sentimentality.
“We have a professional friendship I think now,” Murray said. “When we were younger it was more friendly; whereas now, you know, I still message him sometimes. We’ve spent a lot of time discussing various issues within tennis and doing what I think sometimes was best for the sport. But I don’t think it goes more than that right now.
“I would hope when we finish playing it will be different. But, yeah, it’s just hard because playing in big, big matches with a lot on the line, you can’t be best of friends when that’s happening.”
In terms of their game style, you cannot get a fag paper between the finalists. They are both attacking baseliners, they both move unbelievably well, they both return serve with laser-guided accuracy and power. Djokovic leads their career rivalry 11-7 and won their last encounter – the Australian Open final. Not that any of that matters at all; this is the Wimbledon final, the place where dreams are realised and anything can happen.
Djokovic is the world No.1 and leads the rankings list by more than 3,000 points (a grand slam win is worth 2,000 points). He is also a former champion in SW19. On paper, then, he must be the favourite.
And yet Murray has a secret weapon, one that he has been exploiting more and more this week as the tournament has moved towards the pointy end: Murray has the crowd in the palm of his hand. The 15,000 who pack the Centre Court, and the thousands more who sit on Henman Hill/Murray’s Mound/Murrayfield (call it what you will), are the Scot’s 12th man. They can lift him when he is down, they can push him on when he is winning and they can frighten the living bejaysus out of the bloke he is playing, even if that bloke is as experienced as Djokovic.
Combine that with what he learned by losing to Roger Federer in the final last year, the start of a run of four consecutive grand slam final appearances, and Murray’s chances look all the brighter.
“When I am on the court the support has been unbelievable at the end of the matches and that is what you need if you want to try to win these events,” Murray said looking calm but utterly focused after his practice session yesterday. “It would make a huge difference if the crowd are right on my side.
“I think I learned a lot from last year’s Wimbledon. The whole grass court season last year I learned a lot from. The one thing that kind of stands out is I knew how I needed to play the big matches, or try to play the big matches after Wimbledon, because I didn’t come away from that final kind of doubting myself or the decisions I made on the court, because I went for it. I lost, but I didn’t have any regrets as such.
“I don’t know how many times I have played Novak. We have played so many points, so many close sets, so many long rallies, I don’t know whether it is a match, or a few points or just years of information gathered against each other, I don’t know exactly what it will be that makes the difference today. But having played against him and won against him on grass will help me. I know what worked against him at the Olympics, and, hopefully, some of those things will work again.”
Murray knows that he has the game to beat Djokovic. That Olympic semi-final, a straight-sets squashing of the Serb’s power and athleticism, and last year’s US Open final proved that. It is how to cope with beating the best in the world in the biggest match in the world that is the conundrum – and that is why he picked the brains of Sir Alex Ferguson earlier in the week.
When Fergie came to watch the quarter-finals, pictured left,he chatted to his fellow Scot for 20 minutes afterwards and offered a few tips on handling big occasions. Murray will not reveal what the secrets are but claims they are like “gold dust”. All he will say is that, as he faces his second Wimbledon final, he is calmer, more at peace with his situation and, ultimately, ready to win.
“Any tennis player, that is the goal that you have: you want to try to win Wimbledon,” Murray said. “And the closer you get to it the more you are obviously going to think about it, but the most important thing is that you aren’t looking ahead. At no stage of the match can you get too ahead of yourself. Against most players that is dangerous, against someone like Novak that is even more dangerous, because he is extremely fit and doesn’t give anything away. I am going to need to earn every point.
“The comparison with last year, I definitely feel calmer today than I did on the Saturday last year. So hopefully when I get on the court, I will be a bit fresher mentally. Sometimes nerves and stress can take a bit out of you physically, so the calmer you can stay in the next 24 hours or so will help as well.”
Friendship be damned; this is Wimbledon and Murray is ready to make it his.