Commentary

The budding Murray-Djokovic rivalry

Updated: October 15, 2012, 10:10 PM ET
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

If we didn't know that they were born to different mothers at opposite ends of Europe, one could certainly conclude that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray could practically be twins.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesAndy Murray's leap to greatness started at the 2012 Olympics in London.

It's not that the two look alike, but when it comes to tennis and life, they're taking fairly identical journeys.

Just one week apart in age -- Murray, born on May 15, 1987, is the elder -- the two first encountered each other as talented pre-teens. It was back in the juniors that their tennis rivalry began and it's been heating up ever since.

"I'd say we're friends," Murray said. "I've known him for 14, 15 years now. I've never had any problems with him on the court, never had any problems with him off the court."

Djokovic confirms their relationship is about getting along.

"I know Andy I think the most from all these guys," said Djokovic, when asked about his relationship with Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. "We've known each other since we were 11 years old.

"It's great that we both kind of ascended in the ATP to the top of the men's game in the last couple of years. More or less, we have the same careers -- similar games," Djokovic said.

Their paths crossed again in the Shanghai Rolex Masters final on Sunday. It was another worthy battle between passionate and respectful competitors.

Novak Djokovic
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/GettyImagesDjokovic already has five Grand Slam titles under his belt.

Djokovic saved five match points to topple Murray from his Shanghai throne -- he'd won the title the last two years -- in a 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3 thriller that went beyond three hours.

"I won the match," Djokovic said. "But, you know, as spectators could see, we were very close. It was a very even match throughout the whole three sets.

"He was so close to the victory that I cannot say I was the better player."

The Shanghai win keeps Djokovic in the driver's seat in their encounters: the Serbian leads Murray 9-7 overall. But this year they are 3-3 with Murray winning their previous match, a five-setter to capture his first Grand Slam title, in his fifth major final, at the U.S. Open.

Naturally, however, there are limitations to just how close it's advisable to be to someone when the intention is to create one of the great rivalries in the game. But that goal has in no way prevented these two from being frequent practice partners. Earlier in the week, at Shanghai, they practiced as they've done at a lot of events. But both confirm they are careful not to reveal any new secret strategies on those occasions.

"I mean, yeah, I'd say we're friends," Murray said. "But we can't be spending loads of time together off the court, going out for dinner and stuff because you don't want to get too close to guys you're competing in massive matches against."

Djokovic continues to have the upper hand when it comes to their list of achievements. The Serbian has won five Grand Slam titles -- three in his incredible 2011 season -- and has spent a significant amount of time as No. 1. In comparison, Murray's best tennis has surfaced in 2012 with his recent Olympic gold medal and U.S. Open trophy.

"He definitely is a different player this year," Djokovic said. "You could see by the results that he has achieved. He's more aggressive on the court and he's definitely a danger to anybody on any surface."

Of course, their comparabilities in tennis don't extend to their off-court personas.That's where these two become divergent.

Djokovic is a people person with a natural flair to engage friends and fans. He likes an audience and has always enjoyed bantering and showing off to the crowd. For a while he curtailed his joking ways: his ability to impersonate fellow players was uncanny, but some took exception to his dead-on imitations.

During these couple of weeks in China, Djokovic became the darling of the crowd after taking the time to learn how to write his name in Chinese characters. In Beijing two weeks ago, he happily celebrated his China Open title on-court by dancing with ball kids to "Gangnam Style," the song by South Korean rapper Psy that's gone viral.

By contrast, Murray is a more introverted soul who seems less aware of the goings-on around him and less self-assured of his place in the tennis walk of fame. He likes to be insulated by his inner circle. And while he's someone who knows the pressure of an entire country watching to see if you'll succeed, he doesn't necessarily seem comfortable in the public eye.

For now, Murray still seems willing to admit to the role of chaser when it comes to his rivalry with Djokovic.

But Djokovic, more and more feeling Murray breathing down his neck, handles the question a bit more diplomatically, saying, "I can't really say who is the chaser. I think we both focus on our careers individually and we both try to improve each day. His example is the right example of how an athlete seeks to improve always, and to get better."

Whether Murray ever catches up to Djokovic in terms of accomplishments remains a mystery. But an honor he's likely to receive one day, and will not be in the offing for Djokovic, is that as a reward for becoming the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win a Grand Slam trophy, the Queen will knight him.

While Britons are chattering all over the place that the Queen might be quick to extend that courtesy Murray's way, he isn't anticipating Djokovic, or anyone else, having to address him as "Sir Andy" anytime soon: "I don't think right now is probably the right time for that."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.