MELBOURNE, Australia — After defeating Roger Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open on Thursday, Rafael Nadal was asked whether he’d rather face Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray in the final.
“I prefer the player who is going to play worse that day,” Nadal deadpanned.
An artful dodge by the 10-time Grand Slam champion, but it’s a relevant question. Nadal spent 2011 being tormented by Djokovic, going 0-6 against the Serb with two losses in major finals and four losses in Masters finals. Meanwhile, Nadal ended Murray’s quest for his first Grand Slam tournament title three consecutive times, knocking off the Scot in the semifinals of the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Nadal, without tipping his hand, did turn serious in addressing Friday’s Djokovic-Murray match (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2), saying: “The level of tennis of both players is fantastic. … I’m going to watch the match, because it’s going to be a fantastic show.”
Can Murray make it so? The good news for Murray is that, given Djokovic’s outstanding 2011 season — which included a thrashing of Murray in the Australian Open final and two other major titles — and the world No. 1′s dominant form here this year, Murray isn’t being given much of a chance. (Murray did beat Djokovic in Cincinnati last year when Djokovic retired trailing 6-4, 3-0; the 24-year-old Serb has won six of 10 meetings overall.)
Why is being a big underdog good news? It means that Murray, 24, should feel like he has nothing to lose, enabling him to play with the freedom he needs to challenge Djokovic. This match will be the first true test for Murray’s new coach, Ivan Lendl. Can he get his man in the right frame of mind to compete at his best?
“I’ve always liked playing against him,” Murray said of Djokovic, who was 70-6 with 10 titles last year. “And yeah, after the year that he had, the loss [in the 2011 Australian Open final] didn’t look so bad six months later.”
Speaking before Djokovic advanced to the semifinals, the fourth-seeded Murray added: “I’d like to get the chance to play him again. It would be a good marker to see how I’ve improved since last year.”
Murray’s serve will be key. Djokovic, who has a tournament-high 37 service breaks in five matches, won’t have trouble getting traction as the returner if Murray serves as poorly as he did in the quarterfinals against Kei Nishikori. In that match, Murray served at only 44 percent but managed to save eight of 10 break points. Murray needs to hold easily in order to take pressure off himself and get in position to take more risks on Djokovic’s service games.
Djokovic says he’s fine despite tweaking his hamstring and having breathing issues in his quarterfinal victory against David Ferrer. Taking him at his word, I’m picking Djokovic to win in straight sets and secure his 400th Tour victory.
What better way to start the year than with a major final to see if Nadal has solved the Djokovic riddle?
Check back here later for live analysis of Djokovic vs. Murray.