Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray’s rivalry is that given how very good they have been over the past five years, they have played each other only 12 times since they turned pro. The two 24-year-olds are only a month part in age and have known each other since they were kids and first faced off in a junior tournament in France.
They are still mates, play soccer together, rib each other and hit together. But the only time they have met in a major was the 2011 Australian Open final, which was a super impressive 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 victory for the Serbian. When they face off on Friday night, they will be all business, but that doesn’t mean when the contest is over they won’t still have a fondness for each other.
“We've been friends for a long time, always had lots of respect for him,” Djokovic said. “I think it's mutual. I think our teams are getting along really well. We practice whenever we can. Our friendship and rivalry, you can call it, goes long time back. It's great to see that somebody who you grow up next to is doing well. This is going to be another great challenge for both of us.”
The challenge will be greater for the Scot, who has yet to win a major and comes into the contest with a 4-6 record against Djokovic. The Serbian dominated the tour last year, winning three of the four majors, which is why he is now No.1.
But that did not mean that No.4 Murray wasn’t in contention – he’s reached five straight Grand Slam semifinals (Djokovic has been even better, reaching seven straight) and fought like hell in all his losses. Unfortunately, he has yet to figure out the Rafael Nadal puzzle at the majors, going down to the Spaniard at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. But just being able to make a final four shows that he has not become discouraged.
“It's been a good run,” Murray said. “It's not easy to do. It's happened often the last few years 'cause of the guys that are playing at the top just now. It's good to see that I've been playing my best tennis at the Slams, because that's something the last couple years I wanted to make sure I was doing. That wasn't always the case. Good to see that's been paying off. I've been preparing the best I could for them. Thankfully the tennis has been good, as well.”
Because the Serbian ascended to No.1 last year, Murray now is in Djokovoic’s half of a Grand Slam draw. He may not have a better chance against him than he did against Nadal, but at the very least, he knows he’ll get a different look. Plus, even though Djokovic has a positive record against him, all four of Murray victories over him have come on outdoor hard courts, which does give him reason to hope if he can execute.
“I've always liked playing against him. And, yeah, after the year that he had, the [Australian Open] loss didn't look so bad six months later,” Murray said. “I'd like to get the chance to play him again. It would be a good marker to see how I've improved since last year.”
While Djokovic has been settled with the same team for more than a year and a half, Murray made a big change at the start of the year, bringing in eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl as his new coach. The Czech only started working with Murray in Brisbane, so it’s improbable that he can have a major effect immediately. But perhaps it will only take a small nudge from Lendl and a few keys words to get Murray over the top.
“I don't notice any significant difference,” Djokovic said. “Obviously, he's always been very successful in Australia at the start of the year. He has always been very fit and very committed. He's always been one of the best players in the world. So here we are again playing semifinals of a Grand Slam. That's not a big change. But I'm saying I guess the effect of Lendl being a part of his team can be felt probably in some time to come.”
Defending champion Djokovic has been in very good spirits since he arrived in Melbourne and in order to reach the semifinals he had to survive two stern tests from men who have the talent and fortitude to make him work very hard off the ground – former No.1 Lleyton Hewitt and No.5 David Ferrer. He passed both tests with flying colors, matching their defense and cranking it up on offense.
Murray is not going to be able to grind the Serbian down so he’s going to have to try and take a chance whenever the opportunity is presented to him. Djokovic has shown over the past year he is willing to step it up on big points, and now Murray must do the same. In all probability it will be a cracker of a semifinal.
“He's been proving to himself and to the rest of the people that the Australian Open is probably his best Grand Slam,” Djokovic said. “But on the other hand I have been playing quite well here in last couple years. We have to expect a great match. I hope that I can step out on the court trying to repeat the same thing I did last year. But it's definitely going to take a lot of effort to be a winner.”