Losing to Roger Federer in last year’s final was a devastating blow to Andy Murray, but as we saw a month later, what doesn’t kill you... Winning the gold medal at the London Olympics was undoubtedly the catalyst for change in his career, as was underlined by his triumph a further month later in New York. It doesn’t necessarily mean he will win the Wimbledon title today, against a player who is every bit his equal, but the exorcism of Fred Perry’s ghost has surely begun.
Novak Djokovic is deservedly the No.1 player in the world and will remain so when the rankings are released on Monday come what may today. But there is little to choose between the two players on current form and it will be yet another surprise in a Championship chock-a-block with them if the gentlemen’s final doesn’t go the full distance and some.
Two players have rarely known more about each other’s game than Djokovic and Murray. After all, they have been playing each other since they were 11. In those days it was Murray who held the upper hand. Djokovic yesterday recalled their first meeting, at the Tarbes tournament in France. “It was maybe my first international tournament,” he said. “I remember his curly hair – that’s all I remember. I remember I had a short visit to the tennis court.”
Not any more. Since both joined the Tour, Djokovic has established an 11-7 lead in their head-to-heads and their early friendship has been difficult to maintain in the fiercely competitive environment of professional tennis. The Serbian had a holiday in Scotland last year – he and his girlfriend have a passion for medieval castles - but fully realises that if he wins today he won’t be welcomed back there any time soon.
Nor is he likely to be made at home on Centre Court, which Murray is hoping to turn into his own fortress. The last time the two stepped on this court together was in an Olympic semi-final, when Murray won in straight sets, but two close ones - 7-5, 7-5. But this is a Grand Slam, over five sets, when a player’s fitness and resourcefulness are tested to the limit. As Murray reminded everyone in a press conference the other day, Djokovic used to have a few issues when it came to fitness – as did Murray himself – but not any more. If they held a triathlon for tennis players, the two of them would probably finish first and second with, perhaps, Rafael Nadal a close third.
Nowadays Djokovic has complete faith in his stamina and fitness and like a lot of great players he seems to become stronger the longer the match goes on. Don’t be fooled by the painful grimaces and negative body language: he’s as strong as ox.
At 26, Murray is approaching his peak, but then so, too, is Djokovic. With Nadal’s health an ongoing issue and Federer finally showing signs of slowing down at 32 next month, the Big Four could soon be halved. Djokovic, who is the younger by a week, matured more quickly into the finished article and as a result has opened up a 6-1 lead in terms of Grand Slams won. It’s time Murray started closing the gap.
Should Murray win the Wimbledon title today he will have taken only one more effort to do so than Djokovic, who took seven before carrying it off for the first and only time in 2011. As Tim Henman knows only too well, Goran Ivanisevic, of Croatia, holds the record with 14 attempts before lifting the Challenge Cup.
Arguably, the deciding factor in their four Grand Slam final meetings so far – in which Djokovic holds a 3-1 advantage - has been the second serve. Murray concedes that it’s crucial. “Yeah, it's an important stat in most matches, how you defend your second serve,” he said, “especially when you're playing against one of the best returners.” Which Djokovic happens to be and so, too, does Murray.
In their first Grand Slam final clash, at the 2011 Australian Open, the difference was significant: Djokovic won 60 per cent of second serve points compared to Murray’s 31 per cent. That discrepancy was continued at their next meeting in Melbourne, before the Briton turned it around when winning last year’s US Open. However, at this year’s Australian Open Murray again found himself lagging behind in second serve department: winning 46 per cent to his opponent’s 66 per cent.
The two players’ statistics here at Wimbledon have been remarkably similar, although in the semi-finals there was evidence that Murray was starting to win the battle of the second serve. If he can carry that on into today’s final, the spectre of Perry might be vacating the premises sooner than he thought.
Thankfully, the weight of history – 77 years and all that - doesn’t appear to be taking its toll on him. Indeed he has made light of it. Asked the other day what Perry would say to him if he could, Murray replied: “Why are you not wearing my kit?”
20:24...But boy, it was a barrow-load of fun. I hope you enjoyed it even half as much as we did. Thank you for all your messages throughout, you've been the glue holding us together as the edges frayed amid the madness. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for us Brits to raise a toast to Andy Murray and Fred Perry. British sporting legends both.
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