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This men's final clash could simply come down to the serve

Those desperate Andy Murray fans searching for some particle of hope to cling to before the No. 2 seed meets defending champion Novak Djokovic in Sunday's Australian Open final have at least this: For five of the past eight years, the man who played the second semifinal has won the championship.

The appropriate response here is: "Any port in a storm."

That's not an implied criticism of two-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic singles gold medalist Murray; it's a tribute to the stranglehold Djokovic has on the men's game.

Murray did indeed play the second semifinal this year. The not-so-good omen is that the match was a bitter five-set war that lasted more than four hours. A day of rest should give Murray plenty of time to recover, but Djokovic gets an extra day because he played on Thursday, and won with relative ease.

"I'm going to enjoy my two days off," Djokovic told reporters after his semifinal win against third-seeded Roger Federer. "I think it's good for me at this stage. I've played a lot of tennis."

Murray is coming off a terrific year, but one in which he stalled when he began to close on the top players. He was 5-9 against the top 5 in 2015, and just two of those wins were against fellow Grand Slam winners. In his two best performances, Murray beat Nadal to win the Madrid Masters on red clay and upset Djokovic in the Montreal Masters final.

"It doesn't matter what's happened in the past, really," Murray said to reporters after he stopped No. 13 seed Milos Raonic in the semis. "It's about what happens on Sunday."

True, but it's also difficult to ignore past Sundays, and Murray found himself thanking the ball kids and sponsors in runner-up speeches on four of them. Djokovic was the man who wrecked Murray's hopes in three finals -- the most recent of those occasions was last year, when Djokovic won 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0.

Yet the memory Murray has nursed for the past 12 months hasn't been of that final-set wipeout, but of the three sets that came before. He knows he was a stroke or two from having a two-sets-to-none lead, and should have had enough experience to make the most of it.

"Last year here is a good match for me to look at because the tennis, in my opinion, wasn't miles apart," he said. "It was a very close match for three sets."

The match might have done Murray more good than it appeared. He went on to forge his career-best No. 2 ranking, but still lost five of six matches versus Djokovic in 2015 and has just one win in their past 11 meetings.

It's a discouraging statistic, because they are the natural rivals of their generation, both abundantly talented 28-year-olds born a week apart (Murray is older). Djokovic leads the head-to-head 21-9 (18-7 on hard courts). They play a similar game based on outstanding defense and the ability to transition to offense in the blink of an eye, and with a great degree of power.

The things that seem to hurt Murray most against Djokovic are the more noticeable fluctuations in his level of play, mood swings, self-bashing and the sometimes ragged look of his overall game. Some of those factors also make Murray a fascinating character.

By contrast, Djokovic is a well-oiled machine, his discipline radiant in every aspect, from his superb stroking technique to the crisp, tailored outfits he wears. Part of his genius is that, despite that precision, his game and movements are anything but stiff or wooden.

Both men are highly regarded serve-returners, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in key serve-return categories at this year's tournament. Murray won more points returning opponent's first serves (150-133), while Djokovic was the deadlier at winning points off the second serves of opponents (152-148). These two also won more break points than any other men in the field (Murray with 35, Djokovic 30).

If either has an edge in the serve-return stats, it's Djokovic. His 62 percent success rate on second-serve points is fourth-best in the event, while Murray is ranked 18th (57 percent).

These numbers might become important because the men play a similar style, are very fit and have no real vulnerabilities that can be exploited tactically. It's impossible to know how the rallies will go, so much may depend on serves and returns, especially at critical times -- if there are critical times. The way Djokovic has played since this time last year leaves that question open to doubt.

In reaching his sixth Aussie Open final, Djokovic established a new Open era record. Murray has a record, too; he's the only five-time finalist who has never won it. He'd like nothing more than to surrender that record Sunday.

"People like to read into what's happened in the past, but Stan [Wawrinka] beat Rafa [Nadal] in the final here [in 2014]," Murray told reporters ahead of the match. "I don't know, I don't think he'd ever won against him in like 13 attempts. When he beat Novak here [same year, quarterfinals], the same thing, as well. There's no reason it's not possible for me to win."