When Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray contest a tennis match, it brings to mind to me Djokovic staring at a tilted mirror. Both players are in essence counterpunchers. Both rely on superior movement, low error rates, and superior defensive skills to confound most opponent’s efforts. Novak looks across the net and will see much of himself reflected back in Andy. It is a tilted reflection, though, as Murray will often seem further back than Djokovic in their baseline exchanges, Novak’s own strokes sending the ball farther than those that are being sent back. That is the essence of the matchup: The offensive counterpuncher in Djokovic doing pretty much everything the defensive counterpuncher Murray can do, only better.
Djokovic is perhaps playing the best tennis the men’s tour has witnessed in many years. He looks untouchable. Although he lacks the flare of Federer in his prime, the explosiveness of Nadal in his heyday, he looks somehow more complete than either in their own periods of domination, less liable to upsets or struggles on a specific surface. Nadal could always be counted upon to trouble Federer, whilst a Davydenko or Blake could make Rafa look amateur on a hard court at times. Nobody comes to mind that can be a regular thorn in Novak’s side, rather the current status quo of a Wawrinka pummelling him on rare occasions, or Federer seizing the initiative on fast courts in the Middle East or North East America.
Seizing the initiative sums up rather nicely what Djokovic is doing. Though a counterpuncher, he is continuing to show his natural ability as an offensive baseliner. He is serving big, stepping into the court, and unloading on balls with natural and seemingly increasing power. He is not content to ride out storms against Federer or Nadal; he is actively seeking to deny their like of getting any momentum at all by attacking with controlled aggression.
Needless to say this presents Murray with an instant uphill climb. He will be able to stay with Djokovic physically better than arguably anyone else on tour. Little separates the two in terms of speed and conditioning, but Murray I believe will suffer on two counts of positioning. Firstly, Murray does not hog the baseline, rather stands well behind it. This allows Novak to dictate from the off, sending his man into the far reaches of the court and opening up space for easy winners, regardless of Murray’s speed. The other is the position of Murray’s shots. Unlike the Lendl days, Murray is content again to revert back to rallying mode. The shots are often pushed into play, particularly with his weaker forehand, sitting up in the centre of the court where the Serb can merrily swat them away for winners or forcing Murray into the defensive.
Murray’s last win at a Major against Novak was in 2013; he is 0-3 against him in them since, and has won just one of their last eleven matches overall. Furthermore, he is 9-21 in their entire head-to-head series — not a terrible number, but hardly encouraging, especially as Djokovic has grabbed their rivalry by the scruff of the neck since Murray’s 2013 Wimbledon triumph. Murray’s biggest wins against Novak have also occurred on the slicker surfaces of London’s grass or the fast hard courts of Canada, Cincinnati, and New York. He is no slouch on the slower hard courts, reaching four finals in Melbourne, as well as winning two Miami Masters titles. His relative lack of power and defensive style, though, leave him with his work cut out on slower surfaces.
All is not lost for Murray. I think his first serve at its best is better than the Serb’s, albeit less reliable. I think Murray also has softer hands, and choice attacks at the net could prove bountiful for him. The Australian crowd are definitely the most sporting of the four Majors, and definitely have taken to Djokovic more than their three counterparts. From experience, though, they have always backed Murray more when the two have met here, perhaps out of the Aussie appreciation for the underdog, as well as for a fellow member of the Anglosphere. Crowd support for Murray could spur him on if he were to take an early lead, as well as rile Djokovic, often acutely sensitive to the biases of those in the audience. Murray fans could also take heart from the Djokovic vs. Simon match. The Frenchman, my favourite defensive counterpuncher on tour, has sometimes been labelled derogatorily as a ‘poor man’s Murray’. Both play similar styles, though Murray has more weapons and variety. If Simon can stretch Djokovic to five sets and make him produce 100 errors, it’s more than conceivable Murray could better that.
All things being equal, such is Novak’s form, dominance of the tour and of Melbourne; it is hard to see him not triumphing tomorrow. I believe Murray will contest and win a couple more Major finals before his career is over, but I feel the only haul he will add to in this year’s Australian Open is his runner-up plates.
Novak to win in four sets.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Marianne Bevis