Two of men’s tennis’ famed Big Four will battle it out for a place in the US Open semifinals under the lights on Wednesday when number one seed and 2011 champion Novak Djokovic takes on the man who beat him in the final in 2012, Andy Murray. It will be the latest chapter in a rivalry that dates back to the two 27-year-old’s battles in the junior ranks and that has seen them meet regularly on the sport’s biggest stages.
The pair have battled five times at Grand Slams, four of them finals. Murray came out on top the last time they clashed at a major to claim a historic Wimbledon title last year, but it is Djokovic, the holder of a 12-8 head-to-head advantage, who comes into this latest matchup as a very much the favorite. Since becoming the first British man to lift the title at the All England Club in 77 years, things have not gone smoothly for Murray, emphasized by him arriving in New York as the eighth seed. The Scotsman has not reached a final in 14 months and has struggled to get back to his best following back surgery late last year. He has also had to deal with the departure of coach Ivan Lendl, who was so influential in helping Murray become a Grand Slam champion.
But, now coached by former women’s No.1 Amélie Mauresmo, he heads into Wednesday’s heavyweight duel on Arthur Ashe Stadium with renewed confidence. In the fourth round at the US Open, Murray got his first win over a top-10 ranked player since that Wimbledon triumph when ousting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets.
“I don't feel like I'm that far away from playing my best tennis,” he said after the win. “You know, it's still obviously a long way from trying to win the tournament, but, you know, it's only nine sets now, three matches, and just try and take it one set at a time. You know, maybe five, six days away from potentially winning another Grand Slam. I know there is a lot of work to be done between now and then. But putting everything out there on the courts, last slam of the year, yeah, hope I can play well.”
Murray is certainly in a much better position than looked likely when he began his US Open campaign just over a week ago. Against Robin Haase in the opening round, Murray at one point dropped nine straight games and began cramping before eventually seeing out a four-set win. In contrast, Djokovic’s progress to the last eight has been much more serene. The top seed has yet to drop a set and has lost just 28 games in total.
In doing so the Serbian has largely eradicated doubts about his own condition coming into the year’s final Grand Slam. After winning his seventh Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in July, Djokovic got married and then struggled upon return to the tour, losing in straight sets in the round of 16 at both Toronto and Cincinnati to Tsonga and Tommy Robredo, respectively. Yet Djokovic has again brought his best to one of the sport’s showpiece events, progressing to his 22nd consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal, where he expects a stern test.
“I think also he performs his best in the Grand Slams,” Djokovic said of Murray. “Even though he had this back surgery last year that kept him off the tour for the last few months of the season, he's been on and off this year. But I think in the big matches, as the tournament progresses, he's still fit. He still plays very high quality tennis. That's what I expect him to do.”
Prediction: Murray excelled against Tsonga and will be delighted to have emerged without the need for an extended battle ahead of his meeting with Djokovic. Still, he has spent considerably more time on court at this US Open and will have to step up another level on Wednesday night. It’s unclear if even Murray believes he is yet there. With Djokovic there is no doubt. It could well be an extended battle, with the two players’ excellent defenses always liable to produce grueling points, but Djokovic will have the greater firepower and should come out on top.
Djokovic in four sets
Betting odds: Djokovic 4/15, Murray 29/10 (bovada.lv)
Start time: The match is the second of the evening session and will begin following the women’s quarterfinal between Serena Williams and Flavia Pennetta, which is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN2