For the fourth time in six years, it’s Novak versus Andy in the final of the Australian Open. And the excitement is palpable – by its absence. People don’t care. They’ve watched this film too many times, and they know how it ends. With Murray wilting, and Djokovic winning. It happened in 2011, it happened in 2013, it happened in 2015, and as surely as a Jim Courier interview follows the conclusion of a men’s singles match on Rod Laver Arena, it will happen in 2016. But what are the chances that Murray surprises us? Can he actually do it? Can he lift his first Australian Open trophy, at the fifth time of trying?
I mean, honestly. If he didn’t manage it before, what chance does he have now? Because, of late years, Novak Djokovic has found ways to become even better. How much he’s improved is actually scary. The serve is more accurate, the net play is more natural, the formerly shaky forehand is now a reliable weapon of mass destruction. (The backhand, needless to say, remains as impervious as ever.) Murray’s game, by contrast, has rather stood still. Yes, back surgery hindered him in the autumn of 2013, but since beating Djokovic in that summer’s Wimbledon final, Murray has come up short against the Serb ten times out of eleven. At last year’s Shanghai Masters semi-final, Novak routed him 6–1, 6–3 in 67 minutes. Djokovic was always a bad match-up for Murray, but over the past two years, bad has become worse. Close losses have turned into blowouts.
There’s more. Not only will Djokovic come into the final with the boon of an extra day’s rest, but on the back of one of the best performances in Australian Open history. His dismissal of Roger Federer in Thursday’s semi-final was simply, powerfully, terrifyingly brilliant. The Melbourne crowd, as ever primed to raise the roof at every Federer winner, were struck into silence by the ruthless awesomeness of the Serb’s tennis. By contrast, Murray required five sets (and an injury-hampered opponent) to get past Milos Raonic. Sunday’s final doesn’t quite feel like a fair fight.
But there are signs of hope. Small ones. Their most recent Grand Slam matches have all been tight affairs – Murray managed, in last year’s French Open semi-final, to extend Djokovic to five sets. And for all Novak’s godlike genius against Roger Federer, his fourth-round performance against Gilles Simon – when he posted 100 unforced errors – looked more mortal. Perhaps the fact that Murray plays like Simon not Federer can be spun into a good thing.
So what does Andy need to do beat Nole, beyond winning the last point? First and most of all, he needs to serve well. With Djokovic at the other end, service games will always be hard won. Murray needs a high first-serve percentage, and to trust to the improved second serve he displayed in key moments against Raonic. The mental game, too, is key. He can’t let his wits go wandering mid-match, and it’s vital that he bends his energies upon beating his opponent rather barking at his box. Needless to say, he needs to oomph up his forehand, as well, and crack his crosscourt backhand for all it’s worth. He needs to do all of the above, and remember: there’s no shame in losing to the player history may well come to know as the greatest ever.
Heart: Murray in five sets
Head: Djokovic in four