A year ago, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray stood eyeball-to-eyeball in the Rod Laver Arena in what many people believed was the final to launch an new era in men’s tennis. Could the two 23-year-olds, born just a week apart, take over from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the top of the men’s game?
The answer was plainly and disappointingly no. Well, it seemed that way if you were of the British persuasion. Djokovic controlled the final and went on to complete one of the most remarkable seasons of results the sport has ever seen while Murray went home with his ambitions in tatters and his confidence battered and bruised.
But 12 months on and that rivalry we had all hoped for seems possible. True, Djokovic is still king of the hill, but he can feel his rivals breathing down his neck. The world No.1 and defending champion took 10 minutes shy of five hours to book his place in this year’s final with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5 win over Murray in a pulsating, enthralling and brutal semifinal. They contested 345 points, they racked up 96 winners and 155 unforced errors and they ran themselves ragged. It was both stunning and exhausting – you could not take your eyes off either man for a moment. And then Djokovic somehow managed to repel the all-out attack of his old foe from his junior days and grab that final berth.
When it was over, the Serb fell flat on his back. He was exhausted. Then again, he had looked out on his feet in the second and third sets but from somewhere he summoned reserves of energy to begin again, to counter attack and to claim the victory. It is that fight, that almost superhuman ability to fight back in the most impossible of circumstances, that has propelled Djokovic to the top of the rankings and forced every other player to work harder and smarter in order to keep pace with him.
“You have to find strength in those moments and energy, and that keeps you going, I guess,” Djokovic said. “At this level, very few points decide the winner, as it was the case tonight.
“I think we both went through a physical crisis. You know, him at the fourth set, me all the way through the second and midway through the third. Had some chances in those sets.
But it was a very even match throughout, from the first to the last point. We both have great returns, and it was very difficult because we put a lot of pressure on each other's serve. So even though I was 5‑2 up in the fifth, I knew even playing against the wind on 5‑3 I'm not the favourite in that game, you know. It's proven to be the truth.
“But I held my composure. I was happy to react the way I did and win in the end.”
There were times in that second set when Djokovic looked utterly spent. He was gulping down air and trying desperately to recover from thumping 30 and 40 stroke rallies that Murray was beginning to dictate. But if the pundits worried about Djokovic’s breathing problems, it was nothing as compared to the folks back home in Britain who were hyperventilating with every point that passed. Could their man do it? Not on Friday, he couldn’t, but Djokovic knew there will be more battles further down the line. Murray is improving and the man from Serbia can see him coming.
“He was more confident on the court,” Djokovic said simply. “He was taking his chances. He was being more aggressive. I think he was playing better. It's a matter of, you know, having a little bit of luck combined with a choice of the right shots at the right moments, and that's it. He's so close to winning the Grand Slam. He's one of the best players in the world, that's for sure.”
But the best player in the world is still one N. Djokovic of Serbia. Now he faces Rafa Nadal in the final – and first he must find a way recover from that four hour-50 minute epic against Murray. Still, he made a habit of doing just that last year and there is no doubt that he will be ready for the final on Sunday. And his record of six successive final wins over the Spaniard will make that recovery all the easier.
“I know that I maybe have a mental edge because I've won six finals the five or six times we played in 2011 and I've had lots of success against him,” he said. “On the other hand, it's a new year. It's a new challenge. It's a different situation. As I said, he has maybe a day advantage over me for recovery and for getting ready for the finals. That's going to be my main priority and concern the next day and a half, to physically be able to perform my best and be ready to play five sets. If I am able to do that, then I can believe that I can win.”
A year is a long time in tennis but, for the moment, Djokovic is still the master of all he surveys.