Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray - Best Of Day 14 - 2011 Australian Open

One day after Melbourne hosted the greatest rivalry in this generation of the ATP, it will host the latest installment of something that could have become a rivalry but hasn’t quite so far.  Despite entrenching themselves in the top 5 for the last few years, Djokovic and Murray have met only once at a major and rarely have played their best tennis at the same time in their matches.  (To some extent, one can blame the lack of Slam encounters on the oddly consistent pairings in recent draws, which regularly have pitted the Scot against a certain Spaniard.)  In contrast to the divergent playing styles of Federer and Nadal, this pair of combatants shares similar strengths in their returns and backhands.  Moreover, their meetings have not unfolded according to the internal logic of Rafa’s steady advance upon each of Rogers’s citadels.  After Djokovic dominated Murray through their early meetings, the Scot then rebounded to claim three straight victories, at which time they arrived in last year’s final here.

Anticipated by many to mark the start of a genuine rivalry between them, the 2011 Australian Open final merely signaled the ascendancy of the Serb to a pinnacle never even approached by his counterpart.  Surrendering just nine games to a baffled Murray, Djokovic demonstrated the gulf between them in both physical firepower and mental fortitude.  With the sting of that ignominious defeat surely festering in his mind, the fourth seed should approach the encore with redoubled motivation.  The early stages of his partnership with Ivan Lendl already seem to have invigorated Murray, who has displayed much more positive energy (or perhaps less negative energy) as well as a more aggressive cross-court forehand during his first five matches.

Outside a first-round clash with Ryan Harrison, however, the fourth seed could not have designed a more comfortable draw for himself.  Avoiding the ATP’s explosive shot-makers, the 2011 finalist has needed to do little beyond simply outlast opponents like Kukushkin and Nishikori, who could not subject him to any sustained pressure.  All the same, Murray has used these non-competitive matches to refine areas of his game that might reap rewards against Djokovic, most notably his first serve and his net play.  Those two categories offer the most plausible route to avenging last year’s result, for his groundstrokes cannot match those of the world #1 blow for blow, and Murray should have learned by now that defense does not win championships.

Fitness does play a role in winning championships, though, and Djokovic has not looked his indefatigable, impenetrable best in his last two matches against Hewitt and Ferrer.  Sometimes resembling his pre-2011 self, he slogged through rallies with more weariness than conviction.  On the other hand, he still defeated a top-five opponent in straight sets and showcased his sharpest form towards the end of the match.  Having passed the tests posed by this pair of tenacious competitors, he may arrive in the semifinal better prepared for the challenge ahead than Murray, which could counterbalance any advantage that the latter holds in energy.

But Djokovic shoulders a mental burden of his own, as much as he may deny it and try to suppress his awareness of it.  Following a 2011 campaign as brilliant as any season recorded by Federer or Nadal, the Serb must realize that expectations of a similar sequel probably defy plausibility.  As he braces himself for the towering task of defending as much of his conquered territory as he can, Djokovic must feel as though even as meaningful an accomplishment as winning this semifinal comprises only a tiny increment in a citadel that he must build again from its foundations.  When he first defended a major title, at the 2009 Australian Open, the pressure fused with the heat to produce a desultory performance.  Although the heat will not derail him this time, a gritty adversary like Murray may discourage Djokovic if the match extends longer than the 2011 final.

No less laden with intrigue than the more eagerly anticipated semifinal before it, this match will hinge more upon execution than upon the effectiveness of a certain style, considering the similarities between these adversaries.  After their previous meeting here featured ten breaks of serve during a single sixteen-game span, one should expect a similar demonstration of sparkling returns although perhaps a more capable serving display as well.  Both men cover the court exceptionally well, forcing the opponent to construct rallies meticulously and create unexpected angles.  We envision longer rallies than in the Federer-Nadal duel and quite possibly a more suspenseful match.  At any rate, one certainly should anticipate a sequel to last year’s final that trumps its predecessor in quality if not in magnitude.  For Murray, who has played his worst when the stakes run highest, that dynamic may allow him to believe that he can vanquish the invincible.  And belief comprises the larger half in the equation of victory.

With any luck, tonight might witness the start of a genuine rivalry.