Murray must deal with friendly fire
A rivalry that began more than a decade ago, at a junior tournament in a French town close to the Pyrenees, has reached Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena.
As Andy Murray well knows, tomorrow's final of the Australian Open is not going to be anything like as lopsided as that occasion in the 12-and-unders in Tarbes when he beat Novak Djokovic for the loss of just one game.
On Murray's first two appearances in the final of a major, at the 2008 US Open and here last season, he lost in straight sets to Roger Federer, someone he regards as possibly the greatest player of all time, but this weekend the Scot's opponent will be a man he will recall from those days in the juniors when they would not have been much taller than the net posts.
You sense that Murray will allow himself to play with greater freedom and poise against Djokovic than he did against Federer last January, and that, win or lose, the evening will not end with the Briton standing on the podium saying that, though he can cry like Novak, it is a shame that he cannot play like him.
Friends from the juniors, they are now about as close as two players competing for a senior Grand Slam title could ever be, regularly practising together and sending text messages if the other wins something. That familiarity with his opponent could help Murray, who might not be in the final had he not lost track of the score during an untidy, grinding semi-final against Spain's David Ferrer.
When Murray was serving at 4-5, 30-40 in the second set, the player himself was unaware that he was a point away from going two sets to love down. Maybe it was just as well that Murray thought the score was 3-4, otherwise he might have tightened up, rather than slamming a big serve down the middle. It was only after Murray held, and the umpire called out that it was 5-5, that he appreciated what had just happened.
In the middle of almost four hours of intense tennis, there were a few minutes of useful ignorance, and Murray's 4-6, 7-6, 6-1, 7-6 win should be attributed, in no small part, to his muddled mind.
While preparing to play Djokovic, Murray is unlikely to spend too much time thinking about how he could become Britain's first champion since Fred Perry won the 1936 US Open, as the danger is that he "would get so amped-up and play a stinker of a match," as he put it. "It's not going to help if I go in thinking, 'yeah, no one's won for so many years, I might never get another chance'," Murray said.
Most at Melbourne Park would consider Djokovic, the champion in 2008, to be the most likely winner of the first Slam final for three years not to feature Federer, Rafael Nadal or both. Anyone who watched Djokovic's straight-sets defeat of Federer ought to recognise that Murray is going to have to play brilliantly.
Even though it is a night final, the heat could be a factor. The tournament's meteorologist has forecast a high of 41C, and when the final begins just after 7.30pm local time, it could still be 34C. In the past, Djokovic has had a few problems in the heat with his breathing, so the warmer it is, the better it could be for Murray's chances of winning.
Murray and Djokovic have been practice partners more than rivals recently, and have not played each other since the Briton won the final of a hard court tournament in Florida in spring 2009. Though Djokovic won their first four meetings, Murray has won the last three, all on hard courts, all in straight sets.
It may seem odd that two players in the top five have not met for a while, yet not after you consider that Djokovic has been ranked third and Murray fourth for long periods, so they have been on opposite sides of the draw.
They could only have met in the final, which would have probably meant one taking out Nadal, and the other beating Federer. The domination of Federer and Nadal at the Slams, with the two big beasts winning 21 of the past 23, has meant that Murray and Djokovic have not had the opportunities that they might have had in weaker eras.
Two nights after Ferrer had ended Nadal's 'Rafa Slam', the Spaniard had Murray cursing, chuntering and slapping the palm of his hand against his forehead. There were few cheap points for Murray, with Ferrer getting to everything, and missing almost nothing. It would have been hugely frustrating for Murray during the 20-stroke and 30-stroke rallies, as on occasion he had to win points twice, three times, four times over.
It was by changing his string tensions and by stepping into the court and playing a more aggressive game that Murray prevailed. He was much the stronger in the tie-breaks, dropping just two points in each.
Last year, Murray played some of the finest tennis of his career to reach the final, but never carried it into his match with Federer. This year, it has not always been pretty on the way to the second Sunday, but that does not matter. All that matters is how he performs in the final. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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