Murray, Djokovic ready to tussle
By Ben Rothenberg, N.Y. Times News Service
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Down championship point in the fifth set of the 2012 U.S. Open final, Novak Djokovic blasted a forehand return with maximal power and minimal restraint, trying to repeat the magic lightning bolt of a shot that had bailed him out of a 2011 semifinal against Roger Federer at the Open.
But this time his shot missed -- though by less than an inch. Andy Murray, Djokovic's opponent, staggered to his left, past where the ball had landed just behind the baseline, and then dropped his racket and covered his face with disbelief.
That narrow miss by Djokovic had sealed Murray's first Grand Slam title, forever changing his career and reputation all in one swing, all by a mere inch.
The two will meet today in Rod Laver Arena with the 2013 Australian Open title on the line, and the margins are likely to be just as small.
In the past several years, the gap in men's tennis between the so-called Big Four of Djokovic, Murray, Federer and Rafael Nadal versus everyone else has been massive. Witness, for example, Djokovic's 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 dismantling of David Ferrer in the semifinals here Thursday, which was the rare best-of-five match to last less than 90 minutes.
But when the Big Four square off against one another, it has been difficult to know who will prevail.
Djokovic is on top of the heap at the moment, having beaten Murray and Federer in their most recent meetings at the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November. But last summer, he lost five straight matches against other members of the Big Four, including defeats to Murray at the Olympics and U.S. Open.
But Djokovic changed his fortunes at the October ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai, when he played within himself and saved some five match points in the final against Murray to prevail, 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3. That victory helped turn the tide of the top of the tour, and Djokovic reclaimed the No. 1 ranking from Federer within weeks.
Going into today, Djokovic has the advantage of an extra day of rest (a scheduling quirk of the Australian Open putting the men's semifinals on separate nights), but on paper there is little else separating him and Murray.
They are both 25, although Murray is seven days older. Murray, ranked No. 3, is an inch taller, standing 6-foot-3. But Djokovic has more experience winning on big stages, with five Grand Slam titles to Murray's one.
Djokovic has slightly more speed and flexibility, and can change directions better than anyone on the tour.
But the sturdiness of Murray's movement, propped up by his increasingly sequoia-like leg muscles, led to a steadiness in his ball-striking that gave Federer fits in their semifinal.
It is impossible to guess which minute detail will make the difference this time.n