Just as he did in 2008, Novak Djokovic has advanced to the Australian Open final after charging to the US Open final the previous fall.  Just as he did in 2008, the Serb mercilessly dismantled the GOAT and reigning champion in a straight-set semifinal victory.  Just as he did in 2008, he faces a Slam-less opponent in the final after a premature exit by Nadal.  So, just as he did in 2008, will Djokovic nuzzle the trophy at the season’s opening major?

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Andy Murray of the United States hug at the net during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Across the net awaits fellow crown prince Andy Murray, who has shared Djokovic’s plight throughout the golden age of Federer and Nadal.  Rare is the opportunity that now beckons before the Scot, who can end his Slam title drought without defeating either of the ATP legends.  Initially dominated by Djokovic in a mini-rivalry that has lain dormant for nearly two years, Murray has won their last six sets and both of their finals.  Although the Serb never has faced him in a best-of-five format, the fifth seed’s superior fitness should tilt that unknown factor in his favor should this match extend deep into the Melbourne night.  After tottering within a point of a two-set deficit against Ferrer, Murray saved his most compelling tennis for the pivotal tiebreaks and gradually ground down the ATP’s ultimate grinder.  Uneven in a four-set quarterfinal victory over Dolgopolov, last year’s finalist nearly allowed a routine first set to escape him and then breathed fleeting life into his opponent with a careless third set.  In his first four matches, however, his victims struggled to snatch a handful of games from the stingy Scot, who played with the lucid mind and opportunistic attitude that he must maintain in the final.

The distinct but not overwhelming favorite on Sunday, Djokovic announced himself as emphatically as Murray by conceding just five games to the competent Granollers in his opener.  Beyond a bizarre second-set wobble a round later, the 2008 champion has bludgeoned the belief out of his quivering prey with a series of nearly flawless performances.  Triggering memories of his title run four years ago, he reeled off six consecutive sets against top-8 opponents in the quarterfinals and semifinals.  Two days after Djokovic relied on his movement and versatility to baffle Berdych, he deployed his underestimated offensive firepower to fluster Federer.  The Serb comfortably won all three tiebreaks that he contested against the Czech and the Swiss, while he showed no traces of his chronic fatalism when confronting a second-set deficit in the semifinal.  Whereas Murray’s efficiency has declined across the fortnight, therefore, Djokovic’s intensity has risen with each match.  And one should not lean too heavily on the evidence of their recent history, for the Serb bears little resemblance to his tepid 2008-09 self.  In an ironic twist, a player who has loudly condemned the tour’s brief off-season profited from that brevity by importing his momentum from the US Open and the Davis Cup championship to Australia.

A sprightly counterpoint to the stately procession of Federer-Nadal finals, the 2011 title clash offers a dimension largely absent from the sport’s defining rivalry.  Divergent from the forehand-centered styles of the top two, Djokovic and Murray will unleash the two most stunning backhands in the ATP; in fact, last year’s finalist derives much greater offense from that wing than from his cautious forehand.  Ever crafty in point construction, the Scot will hope to resist the Serb’s mightier first-strike impact and disrupt his rhythm with a smorgasbord of spins and slices.  Much less averse to risk than the fifth seed, the third seed will aim to flatten his forehand and interweave safer cross-court strokes with intrepid rockets down the lines, robbing his opponent of the time required to construct his clever combinations.  These two gladiators share equally formidable first serves, although Djokovic enjoys greater consistency on that shot and complements it with a superior second serve.  Compensating for that disparity is Murray’s crackling return, which will subject the Serb to greater pressure than did any of his previous opponents.  Since both players prefer to wage war from the baseline, one expects them to decide few points at the net, and their seamless movement will thwart most drop shot attempts when this pair stands toe to toe.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia waits for Andy Murray of Great Britain to head the ball back during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Yet the intangible mental dimension probably will separate victor from vanquished.  Neither the Serb nor the Scot excels at concealing their emotions, either smirking in self-deprecation (the former) or moping disconsolately along the baseline (the latter) when the tide turns against them.  How will the two finalists respond to the adversity that surely will confront each of them in a closely contested encounter?  While one combatant seeks to cast aside the cloak of a one-Slam wonder, his adversary would delight in donning that mantle.

Two crown princes.  One throne.  Let the battle royale begin.

 

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