- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
LONDON -- At some point, the order eventually changes. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers gave way to Celtics-Lakers, which gave way to Lakers-Pistons, which gave way to the age of Michael Jordan. It is not an anomaly that the two most popular men's tennis players in the world, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are not playing for Sunday's Wimbledon title, but the two best players in world, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, are. This is now their time.
They played in a riveting, exhausting US Open final, where another furious Djokovic surge fell short and Murray won his first major title. They played another in the Australian Open final, where Murray's body finally succumbed, giving Djokovic his third straight title at that tournament. This time, on grass, Murray and Djokovic will meet for a title again.
In so many ways, they are the same, the epitome of modern tennis. Both are all-court players. Both are punishing baseliners. Both are superb returners. Neither is mentioned as a dominant server but both control matches with their serve in the biggest moments. Both break the will of big servers by returning balls that never, ever are supposed to come back. Both turn defense into offense.
Both can serve and volley and come to the net and finish points, but -- as evidenced by their stunning, bludgeoning 54-shot rally in the US Open final -- they are also content to labor through sheer shot-making patience and be content to hit until one of them errors. In the final, on the quick surface haven of grass, there will undoubtedly be at least one 30-shot rally.
Both live in the shadow of Federer and Nadal individually and as a rivalry, desperate to carve out a public space that frees them from the past. Both suffer from on-court personalities that to date have kept them in the palace of the respected, but not yet the beloved. Federer-Nadal is a virtually impossible act to follow.
Murray has won 16 straight matches on grass. Djokovic is the top seed and has been the best, most consistent player on tour. Murray is home, the place of last year's tears and disappointment of coming just close enough to lose to Federer. Djokovic stretched and strained to win the career Grand Slam only to lose to Nadal in the French Open semifinals and knows, top ranking notwithstanding, he must add to the major count to assume his place in the pantheon.
On Sunday, Djokovic will have played in nine of the past 12 majors. He has reached the semifinals 13 straight times. He has taken on the challenges of Tomas Berdych and, in a classic semifinal, Juan Martin del Potro, and is still standing for what would be his seventh major.
What has gone largely unnoticed with the focus on whether Federer has another major in him or what kind of player Nadal will be off clay: Murray is entering the height of his powers.
He skipped the French Open with a bad back because he needed the rest and because clay is his worst surface. But Murray has made the final of the past four majors he has entered. That doesn't include the gold medal he won in straight sets at Centre Court against Federer, while beating Djokovic along the way.
If the roads of the two men playing for the title were different, their arrival to the final over an unpredictable fortnight was not. The wrenching expectations for Murray are even greater than last year, thanks to the carnage of the draw that claimed Nadal, Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Last year, Murray had to beat David Ferrer in the quarters (and was a point away from going down two sets to none). He then routed Tsonga in the semifinals, an important mandate of a match that separated him even further from the rest of the tour and placed him firmly in the category of the penthouse players before losing to Federer in the final.
This year, Murray hasn't even had to face a top-15 player to reach his second consecutive Wimbledon final, never mind a top-10. Such fortune made his two-set deficit to 54th-ranked Fernando Verdasco even more nerve-wracking.
"It was the biggest thing Andre Agassi hated about the media," Brad Gilbert said. "If you play a couple of really close, tight matches, they say you're not sharp enough to win, but if you roll through a tournament, they say you weren't tested."
Gilbert was right, and it underscores a lack of appreciation for just how difficult winning is. For Murray, the desire to wipe that slate clean and to return Fred Perry to history is daunting. The British public and press want to see and feel the championship afterglow firsthand.
The Murray quest is now personal. The end result, the need to cross the finish line and be done with the statistics of futility becomes far more important than the journey. But all the hardship is part of the natural course of winning a title. The last step, though, is an enormous task: overcoming Djokovic. If the Brits want to see Murray hold the trophy, this is what it takes.
20hBy Jackie MacMullan