After 13 days of fast and furious play, it’s no real surprise that the last two men standing are the two very best hardcourt players on the planet at the moment. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will resume their rivalry Sunday night for a second time with the Australian Open title on the line.
But there’s more than that. For Djokovic a victory give him a record breaking third straight crown in Melbourne, a feat unmatched in the Open Era. At stake for Murray, a piece of history as the Scot tries to become the first man since 1967 to win his first two Slam in consecutive events.
Before I handicap the match, a quick redux on what transpired last night when Murray landed his final berth by beating Roger Federer.
First, Murray was the better player. In fact, he is the better player. But that’s no shock. Murray is 25 and in that prime sweetspot 24-26 age range. Federer is 31 and off his peak best, how far off is debatable.
Still, I thought when push came to shove Federer would get the better of Murray mentally on the key points, and for the most part he did. Except in that fifth set when Federer could no longer hold off Murray’s force.
Watching the match, I sensed Federer was never really comfortable. Murray was jerking him all around the court leaving Roger in a far too defensive position most times. And even though Roger excels at defense, you can only keep it up for so long before it cracks. Eventually, that defense just wore down in the end.
And I said going in Federer’s that serve would be the tell because Murray holds the decided edge in the rallies. Unfortunately for the Swiss it wasn’t his best serving night. Roger struggled to get free points early on and through the first two sets he had just two total aces. A product of Murray’s return, the cool air, the wind, fatigue? Who knows. But Murray kept the pressure on with his own serve. And that’s what I didn’t expect.
In one of his best serving performances of his career, Andy hammered down 21 aces and was only was broken twice through five sets. Roger was hardly making any headway in the Murray service games and that freed up Andy to be that much more aggressive in the returns.
Then in the fifth, just when Federer had seized momentum and the crowd, Murray had every reason in the world to shrivel up and go away, but to his credit he didn’t. Perhaps with his renewed confidence as a Slam champion, he didn’t get down after dropping that fourth set breaker and proceeded to break down a weary Federer in the final set – in similar fashion to how he beat Djokovic at the US Open. By the end it was a mismatch. Federer left punch drunk after absorbing too many body blows.
So, as Roger said, Murray was just too good on the day. I felt Federer would be able to tough out that fifth, but it was Murray instead who showed the toughness.
As for Federer, this is the reality. At 31, with each passing month it’s going to be that much more difficult for him to win – his last hardcourt Slam final was three years ago. Playing in his first back-to-back five set match, Federer maybe was fatiguing in the last set, I don’t know, but at his age and with the number of matches he’s played that’s almost to be expected.
That said, when you consider the age gap and freshness level, it’s a marvel Federer can still compete and beat guys like Murray, Djokovic and Tsonga. And he’s still a factor late in Slams. Amazing.
Now on to tomorrow.
Clearly this is the new rivalry in men’s tennis. While we may never see another Federer-Rafael Nadal Grand Slam final again, we are going to see many more Djokovic-Murray’s. And it’s not bad thing. The two have a history dating back to juniors, they are born within a week of each other (they are 25), they have the same size, similar build and both can and do play with a lot of variety. So it often makes for some breathless tennis to watch.
Djokovic leads this rivalry 10-7, and they’ll meet again at the Australian Open for a third straight year. Almost unbelievably they played seven times last year with Novak coming out ahead by one, 4-3. But Murray got him in that mind-bending US Open final before Novak gained revenge in two three sets wins to close out the year.
“I think so much of it comes down to how you play on the day, to be honest,” Murray said of playing Novak. “I think I started to play better tennis and played my optimum level more in the big matches over the last year or so, which hadn’t always been the case. So I think that’s kind of what’s changed for me. I mean, two years ago he didn’t lose a match for the first six months. It’s tough to know whether you can actually improve from that. But he’s still playing well, he’s No. 1 in the world. He was in the US Open final, French Open final, Wimbledon semis, and he’s in the final here. So he’s playing extremely well.”
From a distance Djokovic should be the clear pick here. He’s the top seed, he’s won 20 straight matches in Melbourne and he’s beaten Murray in both previous Australian Open meetings. Plus, he played some of his best tennis of the week in his last match and he has to be back to 100% health after getting two (really four if you disregard Ferrer as a match and more of a practice session) full days of rest.
However, I am going to discount the David Ferrer semifinal. David, bless his heart, was lucky to have reached that stage and Djokovic did just what Nicolas Almagro was doing, punishing David’s short balls. Except mentally Djokovic knows how to finish, Almagro does not.
What I do look at is Djokovic’s marathon match with Wawrinka. Murray is better than Stan in just about every department, and he can be just as offensive if he wants to be. If Andy plays defense – Lendl won’t let him – it’ll be a long night against Novak. But if serves like he did against Roger and dictates a good percentage of the points just like Stan did, he stands a good chance of pulling the upset and lifting a second straight Slam trophy.
The concern I have, though, with Murray is his freshness. Murray hadn’t played a tough match in two months until Friday night. How will he recover after that four hour emotional win over Federer? It’s one thing to beat Federer, it’s another to deal with the inevitable aftershock! I don’t know and neither does he.
“I’m sure I’ll be tired tomorrow and stiff and sore, so I need to make sure I sleep as long as possible tonight, do all of the recovery stuff,” Murray said. “I’ll hit very little tomorrow, I would have thought. Yeah, just try your best to be in the best possible condition for Sunday. You know, realistically you’re probably not going to feel perfect because of how the match went tonight, but it’s not to say you can’t recover well enough to play your best tennis.”
But even if Murray is fit and ready to battle five sets, Novak has just been so super-human on that Rod Laver Court. Offense, defense, serve, there just aren’t many places to attack with Novak, unless he’s off his game. Nadal couldn’t do it. Federer’s failed. Murray, though, has added that Lendl in-your-face attitude we saw last night, and that will help, but will it be enough? I don’t think so. Not agains Superman.
The pick: Djokovic in five
Match time is 3:30am ET Saturday morning. ESPN has full coverage. Enjoy!
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