But even their senior rivalry dates back nine years, to a Madrid meeting in 2006, and ever since, their 28-match story has intersected only at the highest level. All but two of the matches have been at Masters or Grand Slam level, and the ‘two’ were at the prestigious 500s in Dubai and Beijing.
Over the years, Djokovic became the dominant partner in their head-to-head, just as he now dominates every other player on the tennis tour. He won their first four matches before Murray rose to the challenge with three wins on the bounce. Djokovic went on to win five of their seven Grand Slam matches—though Murray won his first against Djokovic at the 2012 US Open, and his second also against Djokovic at Wimbledon. Their most recent Major contest, at this year’s French Open, was a superb five-setter, but Murray finally broke a losing eight-match streak against Djokovic this August by winning the Montreal Masters.
These two, this year, have in fact made themselves the men to beat. They top the rankings and the Race to London, Djokovic No2, Murray No2. It’s the same story in match-wins: 70 for the Serb, 63 for the Briton ahead of their Shanghai quarter-finals.
Murray, too, is one of only three men to beat Djokovic since the Serb won the Australian Open—itself a four-set thriller over Murray—and to add spice to their forthcoming 29th meeting, he has also enjoyed plenty of success in Shanghai.
The Briton, like Djokovic, has won this popular Masters twice, and was runner-up in 2012—yes, to Djokovic, in a classic that was in Murray’s grasp when he served for the match at a set and a break up and 30-0 to the good. Djokovic found a piece of magic, broke, and stole the second-set tie break, 7-6(11) and then the deciding set, 6-3.
At this year’s tournament, they will meet in the semis rather than the final, but both have been showing title-winning form. Djokovic sailed to the quarters, where he fought off an impressive Bernard Tomic, 7-6, 6-1, while Murray battled past John Isner in three sets and then hammered No5 seed Tomas Berdych for the loss of just four games, 6-1, 6-3.
More impressive still was the style of Murray’s winning: an aggressive, focused, dominant performance of 25 winners to just 14 errors, with just four points dropped on his first serve.
He highlighted that tactical aggression—used by a number of players on these fast courts this week—as one of the keys to his success. He told the Sky Sports team: “I felt like I dictated all the match, and against someone who hits the ball as big as Tomas, that’s not always easy to do. I felt like I wasn’t having to do much defending, was really going for my shots, served well, and was getting a read on the return of serve, too, so I was putting him under pressure from the beginning of rallies on my own serve and also on his serve.
“I felt I was aggressive on the second [serve] as well. I mean in the second set I could have won all the games—I had opportunities, I think, in almost all his service games—so very happy with the performance, and it’s obviously good to conserve some energy for tomorrow.
He revealed, too, that he had encouraged himself to maintain his tactical plan mid-match: “When I was playing that well at the end of the first set, it’s difficult to keep that level… I went up 3-0 and 0-30 on his serve, I could have broken that game and I felt like I played a very good service game at 3-1, which was important… I tried to urge myself to keep being aggressive and keep doing what I was doing because if you take a couple of steps back against Tomas, he can hurt you.”
He then reflected on Djokovic.
“It will be an extremely tough match. He’s been playing well all year but especially the last couple of weeks. He’s not dropped a set in Beijing or here either. We’ve played some great matches before—we had one here, and even though I lost it, it was great tennis from both of us.
“[But] I feel like we’re quite different players from then. He’s won a bunch of Majors, I don’t think at that stage I’d won any myself, and I feel both of us have progressed and are playing quite different tennis to what we were then. I feel like we’re playing more aggressive, so hopefully there will be some shorter points tomorrow. But it is going to be a tough match: I look forward to it.”
If the two men with perhaps the best defensive movement on a tennis court both bring their attacking game to court, it could become the best match in what has been, thus far, a compelling and high-quality tournament.
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