When Andy Murray prepares to step onto Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night, only the man standing beside him will have amassed more appearances in Australian Open finals in the Open Era. Yet that’s where the similarities between the Melbourne records of Murray and Novak Djokovic end.
While Djokovic has won all five of his previous appearances in the final of the first Grand Slam of the year, Murray will be seeking to avoid going 0-5. What’s more, three of Murray’s defeats have come against Djokovic.
“Five finals is a great achievement,” Murray said after coming through his semifinal on Friday. “You can't take that away from me. I should be happy about that. There are very few players that will have made five Australian Open finals, so I have to be proud of that achievement.
“Obviously when you get to the final you're disappointed if you don't win. But, I mean, I've obviously played very good tennis here. I've given myself many opportunities to reach the finals.”
Adding to the task facing the second seed as he looks to dethrone the world No. 1 in a repeat of last year’s final is that, while Djokovic was resting up on Friday night, 24 hours after beating Roger Federer, Murray was locked in a five-set battle in the second semifinal. The two-time Grand Slam champion twice went down a set to Milos Raonic before seizing the opportunity when the Canadian’s movement and serve were compromised by injury to pull out a victory that was four hours in the making.
For Murray, it is not just his opponents that have made this year’s Australian Open a particularly tough one to negotiate. With his wife set to give birth to their first child in the coming weeks, Murray has made it clear that he would jump on a plane immediately should she go into early labor. Last weekend, he also had to deal with the stress of his father-in-law, Nigel Sears, collapsing while courtside coaching Ana Ivanovic. Having spent time at the hospital, before Sears recovered sufficiently to fly home to Britain, Murray revealed after his fourth-round victory over Bernard Tomic that he considered pulling out of the event.
Djokovic’s path to Sunday’s final has been far smoother. Other than a very uncomfortable five-set encounter with the counter-punching Gilles Simon in the fourth round, the Serbian has picked up right where he left off in 2015.
In his semifinal on Thursday, Djokovic produced a sensational performance, particularly in the first two sets, to brush aside the challenge of Federer. The winner of three of the four Grand Slam titles on offer last year, he has also now reached his fifth consecutive Major final. And his latest appearance offers yet more chances to improve his standing in the tennis history books.
Victory would not only put Djokovic level with Roy Emerson for the most Australian Open titles in history, but he would also join legends of the sport Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver on 11 Grand Slam titles.
With his win over Federer he achieved another landmark by taking the lead in their head-to-head series. Against Murray, Djokovic has held the upper hand since the two men, born just a week apart, came on the tour. And although Murray has beaten Djokovic in the final to win his two Grand Slam titles, it is the man from Belgrade who has dominated Down Under, coming out on top in their finals in 2011, 2013 and last year. That victory 12 months ago was also one of six victories that Djokovic enjoyed over the Scot in their seven meetings in 2015.
Prediction: Djokovic has shown that it is possible to play a marathon second semifinal at the Australian Open and still triumph in a grueling final 48 hours later, having done just that when beating Murray then Nadal in 2012. And Murray also has the advantage of being one of the fittest men on the tour. Yet it is far from ideal preparation for what is the toughest challenge in tennis right now.
The world No. 2 was playing at a high level at the end of his semifinal, yet it is hard to see him being able to hurt Djokovic at his best. As good a player as Murray is, the brutal fact is that Djokovic does everything just a little better. The biggest difference between the two is now arguably on their second serve, which Djokovic has improved immeasurably, while Murray’s remains a weakness. And It is a weakness that Djokovic’s supreme returning can exploit. While Murray has the ability to stay around and make it a battle for a couple of sets, Djokovic will prove too strong down the stretch.
Predicted score: Djokovic in four sets
Match time: Sunday, 3:30 a.m. EST