No. 1 Novak Djokovic is bidding to become the first man to threepeat at the Australian Open, while No. 3 Andy Murray could become the first man in the Open era to follow up his maiden Slam title by immediately winning the next. Plenty is on the line in Sunday’s men’s final (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN).
There will be no secrets between these two when they take the court. They’ve faced each other 17 times, seven in the last year. Djokovic holds the head-to-head lead at 10-7, but their matches are quite often decided by a handful of points. They went the full five sets in both their Slam matches last year, with Djokovic prevailing at the Australian Open and Murray besting him at the U.S. Open.
Djokovic is the favorite not only because he’s No. 1, defending champion and leads the head-to-head, but also because he’ll be fully rested after scoring an easy win over David Ferrer in his semifinal Thursday. Murray played his semifinal Friday and needed five sets and four hours to dispatch Roger Federer.
• Djokovic is the best on hardcourts until proven otherwise: He has a 36-3 record on hard courts since the Olympics, and he’s proven over the last two weeks that he is still full of unshakable belief. You saw it in his ruthless dismantling of Ferrer, 6-2 ,6-2, 6-1 in the semifinals (that’s the fourth-ranked player in the world, mind you), and his merciless and gritty five-set win over Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10.
And if you ever needed a visual of how difficult it is to win a point against the Serb, watch him play this match point after five hours of scrambling defense as if it was the first point of the match.
• Can Murray match his semifinal performance?: Murray needs everything to be clicking, but the two shots he needs in particular are his serve and forehand. After firing 21 aces and winning over 60 percent of the points on his second serve against Federer, even Murray had to admit that might have been the best serving day of his career. He was able to hold easily for most of the match, and his forehand, other than wobbling during tense tiebreaks, was looking better than Federer’s. Murray had 15 more winners than unforced errors. That’s an impeccably clean sheet, but Djokovic won’t give Murray near as many free points on errors as Federer.
• The recovery game: It was the question on everyone’s mind, even before Murray beat Federer: can the Brit recover quickly enough to compete at full strength on Sunday? He’ll need everything he has to get past Djokovic, and if he’s feeling the effects, his trademark focus and calm since winning the Olympics will be difficult to maintain. “You never know how you’re going to feel the next day,” Murray said Friday. “Realistically you’re probably not going to feel perfect because of how the match went tonight, but it’s not to say you can’t recover well enough to play your best tennis.”
Here’s a stat that should give Murray fans hope: the man who’s played the second semifinal has gone on to win the Australian Open four out of the last five years. That includes Rafael Nadal in 2009, who beat Fernando Verdasco in 5 hour, 14 minutes and Federer less than 48 hours later, as well as Djokovic last year, who beat Murray in a tough five-setter and then Nadal two days later in a near six-hour epic.
• This will be painful: Before last year’s U.S. Open final, Ivan Lendl told Murray to prepare himself for pain. Lendl knows a thing or two. In their last two Slam meetings, Murray and Djokovic went five sets and nearly five hours each time. It’s punishing tennis full of rallies regularly in excess of 20 strokes at a time. Murray says he’s come to expect it whenever he plays Djokovic.
“I hope it’s a painful match because that means it will be a good one,” he said. Be careful what you wish for. Their game styles are remarkably similar, which means the match can either be an electric display of counterpunching or a slogging defensive grind.
PREDICTION: Djokovic in four sets.