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Sunday, September 9, 2012
No secrets in Djokovic-Murray final


NEW YORK -- Novak Djokovic ought to screw up and fail to reach his goals more often. The defending U.S. Open champ said early this year that his main objectives were to win the French Open (thereby completing his career Grand Slam) and the gold medal at the Olympic Games.

Instead, he may have to settle for the door prize -- another U.S. Open title. Poor Nole.

A win here over Andy Murray would give Djokovic two Grand Slam titles on the year -- one more than either of his main rivals, No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 -- and presently MIA -- Rafael Nadal. And you could easily argue that when it comes to degree of difficulty, winning a two-week major featuring best-of-five matches towers over the Olympic Games' one-week, best-of-three controlled entry event.

You may remember that Murray snatched up that gold medal that Djokovic had been sizing up since the end of 2011, and to add insult to injury, Murray dashed Djokovic's hopes himself, knocking the Serb out of the hunt in the semifinals. Shall we talk about motivation in the men's U.S. Open final?

Actually, we don't even need to go there. A quick look at the records of Djokovic and Murray will suffice. Although the rivalry is competitive (Djokovic is out in front 8-6) and Murray won their last meeting (Olympics), Djokovic has won their two Grand Slam clashes. In 2011, he humiliated Murray in the Australian Open final. This year, at the same event but in the semis, Djokovic had to go all the way to 7-5 in the fifth to win it.

That final detail ought to warn Djokovic's camp and fans not to feel too smug going into this one. Murray is itching to shatter his reputation as the Buffalo Bills of the ATP (he's 0-4 in Grand Slam finals), and he's clearly benefited from the advice of his coach since January, Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl.

Do not for a moment think that Lendl will neglect to remind Murray that the key to that last semi in Melbourne was the way Murray took his foot off the gas after he won the tiebreaker to go up two sets to one on Djokovic. That lapse sealed his doom.

Unfortunately, as hard as Murray and Lendl may have tried to tighten things up in the player's brain, those costly lapses seem to have remained very much a part of his game.

Djokovic has been harshly purposeful here at Flushing Meadows, losing just one set. Murray, by contrast, has flirted with elimination twice. He became embroiled in a tense and exhausting five-setter with Feliciano Lopez in the third round, and Murray was extremely lucky when No. 12 seed Marin Cilic imploded in shocking fashion after jumping out to a huge early lead in their quarterfinal.

But then, that's Murray, who seems to confuse his job of "playing matches" with "playing with matches."

Ironically, though, one of the legitimate criticisms leveled at Djokovic this year is that he's lacked that signature intensity we saw in 2011 from the moment the first ball was struck in any match. He's had somewhat puzzling lapses and letdowns of his own, including a surprisingly muted start against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final.

So the first, and perhaps most significant, key to this match will be which of the players will start -- and stay -- mentally sharp.

On the physical side, both men are in terrific shape, so that's a wash. That leaves tactics and strategy. We already know that Murray can play with Djokovic, and we know that the two of them, friends for years, are thoroughly familiar with each other's games. There are no secrets or mysteries surrounding this one.

These are two of the best returners in the game, so you have to look at serving proficiency as a critical issue. If either Murray or Djokovic has an outstanding day at the service notch, or a significantly better one than the other guy, he'll have a decided advantage. I think the "unreturnable" serve statistic will be telling.

Both men can rally ad nauseam, but where Djokovic can generate greater power and penetration point-in, point-out, Murray is more skilled at making the most of his well-stocked toolbox. Nobody can alter the rhythm of a point better than Murray, and that can prevent Djokovic from making those lightning-quick transitions from defense to offense.

It may not seem like earth-shattering news to predict that the man who makes fewer unforced errors will win this match, but when you have such well-matched rivals that statistic takes on greater meaning. The edge in that department would seem to go to Djokovic, who's generally more cautious and disciplined in his shot-making.

But with the confidence dividend Murray collected at the Olympic Games, his ever-increasing comfort on the game's big stages and Lendl to prepare him, the winds of fate seem to be at Murray's back.

Unless one of these guys comes up flat, this ought to be a wild, unpredictable and ever-shifting ride.