Rumours of the Big 4’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Indeed, once more the tennis world was rife with speculation that the changing of the guard was complete, their claims strengthened by the success of last year’s first time slam winners (Wawrinka at the Australian Open, and Cilic at the US), something that undoubtedly broke the mould when it’s considered that the members of the Big 4 had won every grand slam since Juan Martin Del Potro’s barnstorming US Open victory over Federer in 2009.
But alas, the figureheads of this golden age in tennis history refuse to succumb to the ever-pressing onslaught of the tour’s youth brigade, with this year’s two finalists having done their part en route to the biggest match of the tournament, Andy Murray dispatching the explosive Nick Kyrgios, while Novak Djokovic endured amidst the assault that’s customary when faced with the frightening serve of Milos Raonic.
Now, both have the chance to add another grand slam title to their already impressive resumés. The irony here is that, despite their notable similarities (they were born within a week of each other for starters), they couldn’t come into the final in more opposing form.
Andy Murray’s much-talked about semifinal encounter with Tomas Berdych was perhaps more notable for what took place in between points than what eventuated during them. Nevertheless, Murray’s ability to bounce back from losing an extremely arduous first set was impressive to say the least, and he comes into the match playing the best tennis he’s produced since undergoing back surgery in late 2013.
Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, made life incredibly difficult for himself, squandering breaks and failing to capitalise on the error-ridden play of Wawrinka before finally mustering enough consistency to see out the fifth set comfortably, his ability to overcome a break point in the opening service game decisive in the final set finishing 6-0 in his favour. However, despite this finish, Novak was understandably disappointed in his performance, and 27 winners against 49 errors are not in any way the numbers he normally produces, and such inconsistencies will need to be stamped out against an ever consistent Andy Murray if he is to claim an unprecedented five Australian Open titles.
As previously mentioned, Djokovic and Murray share quite the history, playing their first competitive match at age 12. Indeed, it was at this very tournament in 2011 that Djokovic steamrolled Murray in the final (6-4, 6-2, 6-3) to begin his historic 2011 season, finishing the year as world number 1, having won 3 grand slams and amassed an unprecedented 70-6 win-loss record, leaving Murray in the rear view mirror for a stretch. That, of course, all came to an end in 2012, where Murray conquered Djokovic en route to Olympic Gold in London, and then followed it up by claiming his first grand slam title at the US Open, beating Djokovic in a seesawing five setter. Since then, Murray has won only 1 of their 7 matches, but the one match in question was one he’d gladly accept in exchange for the other 6 losses – this of course being Murray’s triumph at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships.
Perhaps most important to note when considering this match is the final they contested here in 2013, with Murray having the match by the scruff of the neck, having won the first set tiebreaker and about to contest another in the second, before a determined Djokovic played clean and concise tennis en route to winning the second set, and eventually the match, 6-7(2), 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-2.
Overall, the pair have now played 23 times, and there won’t be any surprises heading into their 24th encounter.
When it comes to the intangibles, there’s more to note on Murray than there is on his opponent. Indeed, Murray is currently more animated on-court than he ever has been throughout his career, and trust me, that’s saying something. He is out with a point to prove, with many having written him off following his aforementioned back surgery and lacklustre results that followed it. Furthermore, many speculated that following his Wimbledon triumph, he lost the previously unrelenting fire that had burned underneath him, driving him to improve in order to match and overcome the Big 3 that repeatedly blocked his attempts at Grand Slam success. However, such a fire appears to have been reignited, his on-court bravado indicative of a raging desire to prove that he still has the ability to win grand slams and be one of the best in the world.
Novak Djokovic, despite his wildly fluctuating form in his semi-final, is in the final for a reason, his ability to succeed when not playing his best continuing to hold him in good stead, and he will have hopefully ironed out the chinks in his often impenetrable armour that emerged on Friday night. When it comes to the venue, there’s likely no court that Djokovic would prefer more than Rod Laver Arena. As he openly states, it feels like a home away from home, an arena on which he claimed his first grand slam title, and one where he has yet to lose a match when contesting a final.
Overall, Murray has stated that he considers himself the underdog in this match, something that will relieve him of the pressures that come with a grand slam final. Furthermore, while Djokovic may be considered the favourite, it’s a position that he won’t be daunted by, especially on a court where he has such an incredibly successful record.
THE GAME PLAN:
The Serb and the Scot both share relatively similar game styles. Djokovic’s aggressive baseline play is strengthened by his supreme defensive skill-set and remarkable elasticity. Though Murray’s gamestyle errs more on the defensive baseliner side, he is one of the rare few players who can match Djokovic for pace and reach, and spectators shouldn’t be surprised if the match contains more than a few 20+ shot rallies.
Of course, with both players thriving on extended rallies, expect to see stretches that are rife with passive hitting, particularly at the outset of the match, as both players will look to see if any of their opponent’s shots are less consistent than they would usually be.
Ultimately, victory lies with whoever is willing (and able) to play the role of the aggressor for extended periods. If the often criticised second serve of Murray is on display frequently, Djokovic will not be prohibited in any way in his quest to play aggressive tennis. If, however, Murray is able to sustain a relatively high percentage of first serves, this match will be far harder for Novak to grab a hold of, and judging by their most recent matches, Murray will prove the steadier player in the extensive rallies that will prove decisive in the outcome.
Overall, I’m leaning towards Djokovic due to his incredible success at this tournament over the years, and am banking on him to produce the generally outstanding shot consistency and flexibility that are a hallmark of his game, the calibre of which Murray hasn’t yet faced in the tournament.
Either way, don’t let recent upsets fool you: The Big 4 (in particular the two competitors in question) aren’t going anywhere.
THE PREDICTION – Djokovic in four.
Originally published 31st January, 2015