- Kamakshi Tandon
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are fast becoming the new "it" match in men's tennis. They'll meet for a second major final in a row when they play for the Australian Open title.
Both men will be playing for a little piece of history, too: Djokovic is trying to become the first player in the Open era to pull off an Australian Open three-peat, and Murray the first to win a second major right after winning his first.
The match also represents the latest evolution in the big four rivalry at the top of the men's game. It began with Roger Federer, soon joined by Rafael Nadal, and together the two forged one of the great rivalries in the history of the sport. In 2011, after a few years of knocking on the door, Djokovic made his move, and the Nadal-Djokovic struggle became uppermost in the sport. This past summer, it was Murray's turn to break through and touch the summit.
Now we seem to be in a Djokovic-Murray phase. It has the least contrast in styles but the closest connection between the players. The two 25-year-olds were born just a few days apart and have been friends and rivals since the juniors.
"I think it's special because we are the same age," Djokovic said to reporters a day before the final. "We know each other since we were 11, 12 years old. I guess that adds something very special to our rivalry."
He remembers Murray back then. "I know he had a lot of hair, a lot of curly hair. He was quite pale also," Djokovic said, drawing laughter.
The hair is now a bit shorter, the tan a bit deeper, and Murray's game also has come a long way. It has had to because the climb to join the other three has been high and steep. The Scot has improved his fitness markedly over the years and, after hiring Ivan Lendl as a coach at the beginning of last year, has begun hitting his forehand more effectively and taking the initiative in points more often.
Djokovic, meanwhile, has perhaps the game's best balance of defense and offense, as well as backhand and forehand. It's difficult to get even a well-hit ball past him.
"Andy and him, they are really close to each other with the game," said Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda. "They are great defenders. [Their] offensive tennis they improve a lot, they are serving well.
"It's just, I think, mentally who's going to be better -- decision-making at the right moment, right time. Tennis is about one or two balls exchanged, momentum, then you're rolling for a while, then again and again. So this will probably happen [Sunday]. So better mental state will prevail."
Because both return serve and defend the court so well, most points tend to be closely contested, leading to long drawn-out rallies and long matches. Last year's Australian Open semifinal was 4 hours, 50 minutes, and their U.S. Open final was 4 hours, 54 minutes.
Both are prepared for a similar marathon this time around. "I'll need to be ready for pain," Murray said wryly, looking ahead after his five-set semifinal against Federer. "I hope it's a painful match because that means it will be a good one."
"Every time we played in last probably six, seven encounters, it was always a long matches, physically very demanding, going three sets and five sets in Grand Slams," Djokovic said. "So I guess we have to expect something similar to happen, long rallies, and I'm ready for that."
For Murray, it will be the first Grand Slam final he will play having already won a major title. Will the now U.S. Open champ be different from his formerly Slam-less self?
"I have no idea. I'll see, obviously, how I feel when I get on the court," Murray said, patiently. "I would hope so."
If he was previously dogged by questions about whether he would ever win a Slam, he has since been almost equally dogged by questions about how he feels having won one.
"The task isn't any easier," he continued. "I'm obviously playing Novak again on this court. I mean, this has been his best court, for sure. So I'm aware of how tough it will be to win the match."
Murray pointed to various nervous moments in the U.S. Open final, when he let go of a two-set lead before closing it out. "There's moments in the U.S. Open final where, you know, I could have closed out sets a bit quicker. I think the tiebreak was a good example of how nerves can work in those sort of matches," he said. "It was not the prettiest tennis, so hopefully I'll play a little bit better."
That's where he feels his new status will help, building on his improvement in this area over the past year. In the Australian Open semifinal a year ago, Murray had Djokovic on the ropes but did not close the door, and Djokovic eventually wriggled through.
"I think so much of it comes down to how you play on the day, to be honest," Murray said. "You know, 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."
But though Murray has been closing the gap mentally, he might be at a disadvantage physically going into the final. Although Djokovic had a five-hour match in the fourth round against Stanislas Wawrinka, the world No. 1 bounced back quickly and has not been threatened since, turning in an impeccable performance against David Ferrer in the semifinals. Third-seeded Murray, meanwhile, had his five-setter against Federer two days before the final. He now faces another long match against Djokovic, who also will benefit from the schedule by having an extra day's rest going into the final.
The bar has been set by last year's final between Djokovic and Nadal, which went 5 hours, 53 minutes and finished past midnight. If this one follows suit, players and spectators might want to pack dinner -- and a midnight snack.
"Hopefully, we'll not serve breakfast in the morning," Vajda said.
2dAnna Katherine Clemmons