For the second time of asking this year, Andy Murray must find a way of getting past Novak Djokovic if he is to fulfil his ambitions at a tournament that matters. If he wins today, he will earn his place in the BNP Paribas Open final.
The last time the pair met was in Australian Open final at the beginning of February. On that cool evening in Melbourne, Murray should have won the first set, did win the second and then, from a break up in the third, he imploded. Distracted by Djokovic’s antics – playing possum, the Serb looked to be out on his feet before springing back into action – the rest of the match ran away from him and, smashing his rackets in frustration once the final point was over, Murray was furious with himself. It had been a chance – a real chance – to add to his tally of grand slam titles and he blew it.
For some players, that memory would have lingered long and sore. But, after the season Murray endured last year, the very fact that he was back in a major final and within touching distance of victory was a reward in itself. He lost not because he was not good enough to beat Djokovic, he lost because he let his mind wander. That is a problem that can be fixed with a few mental push-ups and some tightening of the bolts that keep the concentration in place. “I don’t think I need to do loads to get to that level where I can beat someone like Novak because, in my opinion, the level was there in Australia,” Murray said.
“Last year it wasn’t there. I didn’t feel like I was there. I had a chance against Rafa in Rome [last year], definitely had an opportunity there, but the other matches I played against Novak, Roger and Rafa, I wasn’t there whereas this year, obviously with the start in Australia, I felt like my game was there. I just need to maintain that level throughout the whole year and if I do that, I’ll definitely get some wins against them.
“I think that, for me, Australia was an extremely positive event. Maybe in years past when I’d lost in Australia, sometimes I’d never won a slam before a lot of the times, and I found that very disappointing after all the work that had gone in December to have not done it. And then also, because of how I finished the end of 2014, obviously the match against Roger [at the ATP Finals in London] was a tough one for me and also at the US Open and Wimbledon, I’d had some tough losses there, too. I just felt that after Australia, my level was there so I was happy with the way that I was playing. When that’s the case – when you feel you’re playing well – it’s a little bit easier to get over losses.”
Murray has been playing extremely well in the Californian desert. Like many players, he has struggled with the conditions here over the years. The balls are, depending on the air temperature, small and hard or softer and fluffier but either way, they feel and play differently to anywhere else in the world. But this year, Murray has mastered the conditions and found a way to win again. He squashed Feliciano Lopez on Thursday, winning 6-3, 6-4, to bring his winning record over the Spaniard to 10-0.
Against Djokovic, he knows he will have to play even better – he has not beaten his old rival since he did for him in straight sets to win the Wimbledon title and, overall, he trails the world No 1 8-16 in their career rivalry.
Murray also knows that however one-sided the scoreline looks, he will have to fight tooth and nail for every point. After 15 years of competing against each other, there are no secrets between them and so similar are their game styles that even a game of tiddlywinks could go on for hours. As for any lingering animosity over what happened in Australia, Murray is adamant that there is none – he lost the final because he allowed himself to be distracted – that was not Djokovic’s fault.
“I always look forward to playing him,” Murray said. “I make sure to tell myself before the matches that if I want to win, I know it’s going to be physically very demanding, it’s going to be painful at some stages – on these courts especially, the body does hurt a bit after a while of moving about on them.
“So, I make sure that, mentally, I’m prepared for that so that if I do have to play a bunch of long points or two sets do take two hours, then that’s what you expected. Any less than that is a bonus.
“I think we’ve played each other so much now that we kind of know the right way to play against each other. It’s really just up to whether you are able to execute that on the day and also when the chances and the opportunities come, that you take them and you play when they’re there. It’s just I try to go on there with the right tactics, the right frame of mind and hopefully play a good match. And if I do that, I give myself a good chance.”