Novak Djokovic will chase a hat-trick of Australian Open titles in Sunday's final against his US Open conqueror Andy Murray, renewing a growing rivalry which dates back to their junior days.
He thrives on the Melbourne hardcourt surface where he has won three of his five Grand Slams, and is the hot favourite after his brutal semi-final demolition of fourth seed David Ferrer. The Serb's confidence is sky-high after his spectacular recovery from his draining five-setter over five hours with Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round, bouncing back with emphatic wins over Tomas Berdych and Ferrer.
Djokovic described his tennis as "incredible" as he flattened Ferrer in less than 90 minutes on Thursday, giving him two full days to rest and prepare -- in stark contrast to his build-up 12 months ago. Then, Djokovic had to dig deep to win the title after fighting off Murray in a five-set semi-final over 4hr 50min, ahead of his 5hr 53min final triumph over Rafael Nadal, the longest ever match at Melbourne Park. There's little wonder the 25-year-old top seed feels he's in the right frame of mind for the Murray challenge.
"It's just the conditions in general that I like, especially on Rod Laver Arena. It's my most successful Grand Slam," Djokovic said.
"Being in a third consecutive final is an incredible feeling and achievement, I'm so very proud of it.
"I was pushed to the limit in the fourth round and I've had some really physically tough matches in this tournament, and I'm glad that I got through it. Right now I feel great on the court."
Djokovic leads Murray 10-7, with two of the wins at the Australian Open, including a straight-sets win in the 2011 final.
Born a week apart, they first met on the junior circuit before they were even teenagers.
"What was he like? Well, I know he had a lot of hair, a lot of curly hair. He was quite pale also," Djokovic remembered.
But the Ivan Lendl-coached Murray looks a different player now that he has broken through for his maiden Grand Slam title at last September's US Open, where he beat the Serb in five sets in the final.
Significantly, Murray vanquished his Grand Slam nemesis Roger Federer for the first time at a major in a classic four-hour, five-set semi to book his place in the decider.
"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," the Scot said.
"I think that's what's changed for me. I mean, two years ago he (Djokovic) didn't lose a match for the first six months."
Murray, who lost four Slam finals before finally cracking it at Flushing Meadows last year, said the US Open win has steeled his confidence.
"Those matches last year have obviously helped mentally. I think going through a lot of the losses that I've had will have helped me, as well," he said.
"I've been questioned for large parts of my career about physically would I be strong enough, mentally would it be strong enough, do I listen to my coaches, can I handle pressure?
"I think those years of having all of those questions and then finally to be able to answer them I think, yeah, it was all part of the process. Having won against Novak before in a Slam final will help mentally."
Greats back the serb
Tennis greats Roger Federer and Andre Agassi both believe Djokovic will come through in Sunday's final.
"Obviously Novak goes in as the favorite, I would think, even though Andy beat him at the US Open," Federer said. "I give a slight edge to Novak just because of the last couple of days."
Agassi, who won four of his eight Slam titles in Australia, also fancies the Serbian top seed.
"I certainly would favour at this stage, given the quality of play and the second life that Djokovic has after that Wawrinka match, I would give him the edge," Agassi said.
In Murray's favour in is that in four of the last five years, the man who played his semi-final second has gone on to win the final.