History is in the making: Novak Djokovic is trying to equal Roy Emerson’s record of six Australian Open titles; Andy Murray is doing his damnedest not to become the first man ever to lose a final five times at the same grand slam.
This morning, they will meet for the 31st time in their careers (Djokovic leads 21-9) and the fourth time in the Melbourne final.
Twelve months ago, Murray thought he was ready for the world No.1; he had him at a set apiece and he was taking the fight to his greatest rival. And then, as Djokovic appeared to be out on his feet at the start of the third set, Murray let his mind wander towards the other side of the court and Djokovic, in a Lazarus-like recovery, sprang back to run away with the next two sets. It was a painful lesson for Murray to learn.
But learn he did and reciting the mantra, he outlines what he must do to keep the world No.1 in his sights.
“Sustain my level for long periods and not have any drop offs,” he said. “If you have the advantage, to keep doing what you’re doing; don’t change anything. Maintain your intensity. And that’s it.”
There will be a little more to it than that, though. No matter what the score, no matter how lopsided the result, the matches between Murray and Djokovic are always long and physical affairs. Their games are almost identical: they are attacking baseliners, they are the two best returners in the game, they defend as if their lives depended upon it and they can turn defence into attack with the flick of a wrist. Knowing that he is basically looking in the mirror when he faces Djokovic, Murray is hard pushed to come up with a game plan to really surprise the Serb.
“It maybe makes the tactics a bit tougher,” Murray said. “Obviously, Novak doesn’t have loads of weaknesses in his game, not many of the top guys do, so it’s tough. I’ve also played him so many times to know some of the things that make him uncomfortable as well. We know each other’s game pretty well so I’ll try to use all those other matches to my advantage.”
His coach, Amelie Mauresmo, was planning on focusing on Murray’s last win against Djokovic at the Canadian Open last August and using it as the starting point for her strategy discussions. Murray, on the other hand, was more interested in looking at some of his losses last year – particularly the one here and in the French Open semi-finals.
“A lot of the matches we played last year were pretty close,” he said yesterday. “The two matches we played in the slams were close and then it is also good to watch matches you have won as well to see if there is something different you did in that match. I will have a little look at them tonight.”
That said, Mauresmo was sticking to her guns. Reinforcing the idea that Murray can beat Djokovic, she wanted him to remember every point of that last win.
“I think the victory in Montreal did him a lot of good,” she said. “It showed that he was still capable of beating him.”
His semi-final with Milos Raonic, all four hours and five sets of it, did a lot for his confidence. In a troubled tournament of off-court worries and concerns both for his pregnant wife and his father-in-law who was taken ill last weekend, Murray was able to focus fully for the first time on Friday. He was quiet on the court after the first set and he was able to retreat into his own little world, a bubble in which he was free to concentrate only on the point in front of him. That sort of mental strength will be vital against Djokovic.
The question is: how to play the defending champion. He was aggressive when he beat Djokovic in the Canadian Open final but that was over the best of three sets. With potentially five sets and many hours to go before the title is decided, all-out attack may not be the best battle plan.
“It’s a difficult one,” Murray said. “Roger [Federer] tried to do that the other day and it wasn’t that easy whereas Gilles Simon played completely differently and was very successful for a large part of that match playing that way.” Simon kept Djokovic on court for five sets in the fourth round, counter-punching and driving the No.1 to distraction. He could not close it out, but he did give Djokovic an almighty scare.
“So you have to use your strengths as best you can,” Murray went on, “learn from matches you’ve played against him and things that have worked well for you in the past.”
What he does know is that he can beat Djokovic in big matches – Murray beat him to win both Wimbledon and the US Open.
“I have no idea how my level will match up to his on the day,” Murray said. “I think you never know until you get out there. He’s played great tennis in this event. Obviously, against Roger he played excellent. So you never know until you get out there.
“You just have to believe in yourself and hopefully come up with a good strategy to make him uncomfortable on the court and then see when you’re out there. But I’ve played him a lot of times in slams and all of the matches have been pretty competitive – there’s no reason for me to think that today will be any different.”