After three defeats to Djokovic, Andy Murray and his coach Mauresmo working to secure Australian Open title
IT IS the fourth time of asking. Andy Murray is trying to win the Norman Brookes Trophy at the one grand slam away from Wimbledon where he feels most at home. When it comes to consistency , you cannot fault Murray at Melbourne Park.
Each of his four finals here have been played under different coaches. His first, a tearful loss to Roger Federer in 2010, was his last with Miles Maclagan. In 2011, Alex Corretja was steering operations on the end of a phone from home while Dani Vallverdu did the legwork on the practise courts and Murray lost to Novak Djokovic. Two years later, and Murray by then the US Open champion, lost to Djokovic again, this time under the watchful eye of Ivan Lendl. Now it is Amelie Mauresmo’s turn to try to crack the conundrum of the Rod Laver Arena as Murray faces Djokovic yet again.
In all, they have played 23 times before (the Serb leads 15-8), four times in major finals. When it comes to the big prizes, the honours are even, with Djokovic, who has never lost a final in Australia, winning twice here and Murray winning in New York and at Wimbledon. On court, they are like two peas in a pod – counter-punching baseliners who can turn defence into attack in a split-second. Off court, they could not be more different. Murray is one for the quiet life, shying away from the spotlight whenever he can. Djokovic is the showman, the man desperate for respect and affection.
“At the beginning of the tournament everybody spoke about Rafa’s injuries and his comeback and about record-winner Federer,” said Djokovic’s coach Boris Becker, tartly, “but no one talked about the four-time Australian Open winner and reigning No.1 – Novak Djokovic. That is wrong, he deserves more respect. You have to stick with the facts. There is a No.1 who comes from Serbia and his name is Novak Djokovic.”
Certainly, Murray and Djokovic looked very different in their respective semi-finals. Murray was the all-out aggressor, pummelling Tomas Berdych into submission over four sets. The world No.1, though, looked utterly exhausted as he limped past Stan Wawrinka in five, dismal, error-strewn sets. On that form, Murray is the overwhelming favourite for the title. But Djokovic will not bring that poor form to the final – he never does. Unless he is at death’s door, he will fight like a cornered ferret to keep his winning record here intact, and Murray knows it.
He has prepared long and hard for this moment, relishing the chance, at last, to spend weeks on court with Mauresmo during the winter break. Free of any physical problems, he trained well to get himself into peak condition and then worked on the technical side of his game with the 2006 Australian Open and Wimbledon champion. Since he touched down in Melbourne, he has been enthusing about the quality of the sessions and the improvements he has been able to make, although neither he nor Mauresmo will go into specific details. It is up to Djokovic to work out today exactly where Murray has moved on.
“I’m not sure I’m really going to go into specific details of his game or whatever,” Mauresmo warned again. “He has mentioned already his serve, which was one big part of the work. We also still need to do some work [on that], I think, but it’s already improving. It’s not all going to happen like that [clicking her fingers]. I think the big part for him is that he is now capable physically of being on the court for a long time, for long matches, long best-of-five matches. He wasn’t able to do that at the US open, for instance. Yes, we spend quite a lot of time on the court so that he knows he can last, so that he knows he can do the things and he can do the evolutions in his game throughout the long sessions and throughout long matches.”
That was always the key to Murray’s on-court confidence – he knew he was as fit, if not fitter, than the best men on the tour. If they were going to beat him, they were going to have to bring their A game because no man was going to wear him down physically. Add to that a new emphasis on aggression, on stepping up to the baseline and dictating points from the start, and Murray has powered his way through the rounds for the loss of only two sets.
As Murray’s challenge has gathered momentum, so Mauresmo has been pushed further and further towards the centre of the stage. This is something she was not expecting when she first joined forces with the Scot, even though she had got to know the British media well enough during her playing days. She knew the rules of the media game. Even so, the Neanderthal attitudes of some people to her coaching a top male player struck her as not only surprising but just plain ridiculous.
“Honestly I really didn’t know what to expect, but, again, I would go more on [the question of] me being a woman,” she said. “It’s quite surprising to still see how much attention that can get. At the end of the day I wish I could just be compared with what the male coaches are saying to their players. I’m quite sure there’s not that much difference in what we actually say, in what tactics we use, in the words we are using to approach a semi-final or a final of a Grand Slam.
“I may do it in a different way because I’m a calm person, I don’t get excited. But other than the way [I talk] it would be quite funny to compare those things because I’m quite sure there’s not much of a difference – or the difference would be like you might find between any coaches, men or women.”
Murray spent yesterday taking it easy, practising in the afternoon and getting all his media commitments out of the way. He did not watch the Djokovic semi-final the night before – but had kept tabs on the score throughout dinner – and was planning to watch the pertinent sections last night before planning his tactics.
According to Becker, Djokovic is a better player this year than last because he is a happier man. Married and a new father, the Serb is entering a new phase of his life – that said, the results tend to be the same as usual. From leaving the US Open, beaten by Kei Nishikori in the semis, Djokovic lost only one game until the end of the season. He may have been off form and suffering from a virus at the start of the season but in Melbourne, he has looked good at times and shaky at times – but he has kept on winning.
“He is at ease in his life,” Becker explained. “He has become a father, which has not stopped him becoming world No 1. Many would have not got there. Yes, he is happy. It is true for everyone. When your private life is full of love, it makes it easier to do your job.”
But Murray is happy, too. Recently engaged, thriving under the guidance of Mauresmo and with a happy team around him, he feels ready to contest the biggest prizes with the best again. Whether that will be enough today only time will tell. And, if not today, then there are three grand slams left to play for as the season unfolds.