World number two Andy Murray will take on number one Novak Djokovic on Sunday in an attempt to win his first Australian Open title. This would be Murray’s fifth final at Melbourne.
The Scot lost title clashes to Roger Federer in 2010, and to Djokovic in 2011, 2013 and 2015, and will be determined to avoid a fifth loss in the summit clash of the season’s first Grand Slam.
At stake for Murray is a chance to come good at Melbourne Park in his ninth Grand Slam final, and win his third Major title. For Djokovic, it’s a chance to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup a sixth time for his 11th Grand Slam title, and tie him with legends Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver on the all-time list.
Saturday’s events at Melbourne Park will give Murray just the additional inspiration he might have needed to cross the final hurdle this time. His older brother Jamie teamed up with Brazil’s Bruno Soares to win his first Grand Slam doubles title, after consecutive runners-up finishes with former partner John Peers at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.
Against Djokovic, Murray will need all the positive emotions he can get – and Jamie’s win may just help. The Serb leads their head-to-head 21-9 and has won 10 of their last 12 meetings. Djokovic has also won three of their last four encounters at a Major, and all four of their clashes in Melbourne. Furthermore, the Serb is 6-2 over the Scot in overall Grand Slam matches, 3-2 in Major finals.
The two victories for Murray were in the final of last year’s Rogers Masters at Montreal, and his historic triumph at Wimbledon in 2013. In Montreal, he came out with an extremely aggressive game plan and was firing right from the start.
Murray’s problem is that he usually isn’t able to play his best early enough in a match, and thus ends up trying to catch up the rest of the way. He simply cannot afford to muck about, especially in the first set. And unfortunately for him, everything the Scot does, the Serb manages just that little bit better – return of serve, offence, taking care of his own serve.
When he does find a high-enough level of tennis, Murray has problems sustaining it. And he’s all too aware of the problem. “I have a very good shot on Sunday if I play my best tennis,” he said. “I need to do it for long enough to have a chance. I’m aware of that. I don’t think many people are expecting me to win. I have to just believe in myself, have a solid game plan and hopefully execute it and play well. But the previous disappointments — look, it’s one tennis match. Doesn’t matter what happened in the past, really. It’s about what happens on Sunday.”
Part of that solid game plan, especially in victories past, has involved being more aggressive with the forehand. Targeting the Serb’s forehand, his relatively weaker wing, helped him win his first Major at the US Open in 2012. If he does want to attack Djokovic’s reliable backhand, it must be with the inside-out forehand to get the Serb on the run -- a putaway volley on the floating return is a one-two punch that he can use to shorten points.
Scheduling for the men’s semifinals in Melbourne is absurd. One semi is played on Thursday, the other on Friday. That means not only has Murray spent an additional one hour, 21 minutes on court over Djokovic, he’s also had one less day of rest. But the fatigue factor is, perhaps, overrated. Djokovic returned from a five-hour-long semi against Murray to prevail over Rafael Nadal in a six-hour final in 2012. Nadal recovered from a five-hour semi against Fernando Verdasco in 2009 to beat Federer in the final. Murray, who follows a gruelling off-season training regimen in Miami, is one of the fittest guys on the tour.
It also bodes well for him that five of the last eight finals in Melbourne have been won by the player who played the second semifinal.
Despite the lopsided rivalry, Djokovic, is not one to underestimate Murray. “It’s always a special kind of challenge because we have the rivalry that goes back for a long time,” said Djokovic, who has reached more Aussie Open finals (six) than any other player in the Open Era. “It’s always very physical, also very psychologically demanding. We push each other to the limit.”
The Serb recovered well from his five-set, 100 unforced errors-filled performance against Gilles Simon in the fourth round, to offer up a masterclass against Federer in the semis. But his level did drop just enough for the Swiss to sneak in a set.
When that happens on Sunday, Murray needs to be ready to grab his chance. So, settle in your seats, because this is going to be a long, hard-fought final.