For the first time in three years there will be no Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal in a Grand Slam final, and I have to say, I don’t mind. Replacing or standing in for the two legends later tonight/early this morning are Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Djokovic was the prime beneficiary the last time Roger and Rafa failed to reach a final Sunday at a Major. That was at the 2008 Australian Open when Novak ripped Roger in the semifinals then beat JW Tsonga in the four-set final to win his maiden Grand Slam.
This time circumstances are similar.
In the semifinals Thursday night, to my surprise, Djokovic really whipped Federer beating the Swiss again in straight sets on Rod Laver. Roger played well but Novak was far too consistent – he seemed to get every ball back – and his serve was clicking, which I thought would be a real key to the match.
From what I saw it was one of Novak’s best matches he’s ever played. I have been saying for years that the Serb has the game to dominate the sport. And we got to watch it in full flight Thursday. Wow.
Murray is also back into the Australian Open finals. Last year, the Brit ousted an injured Rafael Nadal and overcame set hole to Marin Cilic in the semifinals.
Again, similar path this year.
Friday Murray was under severe pressure from David Ferrer, who at times resembled more of a wall than a human. Murray’s passive play and Ferrer’s inability to hit clean winners made for long, grinding rallies. But in the tiebreaks when it mattered the most the Spaniard cracked and Murray got through after losing the first set to win in four.
So we have Djokovic v. Murray in the final. And they’ve known each other for years.
“We were 11 years old or 12,” Djokovic said of first meeting Murray. “We played couple of times under 14, under 16 in the European level, then we started to play the professional tournaments. We didn’t play for a couple years. He went to Spain. I think he was practicing in Barcelona. I was partly in Germany, partly in Italy. We went the different paths. Then again at more or less the same time we developed into the professional tennis players. So it’s been a nice story, you know, about both of us. And to be able to meet him in a Grand Slam final, it makes it even more special.”
Surprisingly, these two friends, practice partners and 23-year-olds, haven’t played a tour-level match since Miami in 2009. Overall, Djokovic has the head-to-head edge 4-3 but it’s been Murray who’s won three straight, all in straight sets and all on hardcourts including that Miami final.
But playing in the Australian Open final is a major level up from Miami. This is a best-of-5 set match for the first Slam title of the 2011 season.
“I don’t know if they’ll have a bearing during the match on Sunday,” Murray said of his past wins over Novak. “But at the time they meant a lot to me. You know, I expect a very tough match. I’m not expecting him, just because he’s lost the last couple of times, to hand the match to me. I’m going to have to work incredibly hard.”
Both players have been this far before in Melbourne. Novak’s into his fourth career Slam final, Murray his third. But Novak has won his and won it here. Murray has yet to win a set.
That said I absolutely give Murray a chance tonight. However, I like Djokovic.
For me the biggest problem I see with Murray is the fact that Ferrer was able to push him around and get on top of him at times. Why that’s an issue is because Djokovic, as we saw against Federer, can not only duplicate Ferrer’s tactic but execute far better with greater weaponry.
Ferrer couldn’t put many of Murray’s ball away, Djokovic can and will.
“We have more or less similar games,” said Djokovic. “We put some variety in our games depending on who we play. But our games are based on the baseline. We can mix it up. We can play spin, defensive, offensive, quite solid serves. It’s going to be interesting to see who is going to dominate from the baseline. But I expect long rallies. I think patience and really using the opportunities when they have been given to you in the certain moments.”
Murray’s quick enough to keep pace with Novak, but will he be more offensive-minded than the Serb? In tennis, great offense eventually beats a great defense.
I think if Novak plays like he did against Federer he’ll win, regardless of how Murray plays.
If Murray can serve huge, win his second serve points and return well, that will put him in position to win the match.
Fitness could also play a role. Murray went through a very tough, physical almost four hour, four set win over Ferrer and I wonder just how well his legs will have recovered. And we know Murray’s going to be running again against Djokovic.
Djokovic had a very emotional win over Federer, but I think the extra day off should bring him back to 100% full strength.
Although temperatures are forecasted over 100F during the afternoon in Melbourne. The match will of course be played in the evening.
Experience is again another factor. As I said Murray’s never won a set in a Slam final. He’ll get over that hump tonight but I think Novak’s experience of winning big matches – he won Davis Cup, he won the 2008 Australian Open and he beat Federer the other night – give him the edge.
Murray’s big wins have mostly come in the Masters or ATP events. But on the very biggests of stages – the Grand Slams – who has he beaten? Wins over Nadal and Roddick from a few years ago? Not enough.
And credit to Novak who really has put his game together. Six months ago he looked lifeless in losing badly to Roddick at Cincinnati. Then in his next match he was down 2-1 in sets to Viktor Troicki in the US Open first round. Yet, despite the heat, his poor play and the scoreboard at the time he pulled himself up, and look what’s happened since. Might that Troicki match be his “a-ha” moment? I think so and tonight in Melbourne in four sets he’ll win his second Grand Slam title.
The men’s final is scheduled for 3:30am ET to be shown live on ESPN2 with online streaming at ESPN3.com. Set your alarms!
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