Australian Open 2012: Dejà vu for Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic will do battle in the Australian semi-finals after both came through in straight sets
Twenty-four hours after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal confirmed their designated places in the first semi-final of the Australian Open, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic did precisely the same.
For the third time in the last four Grand Slams, the top four men are the last ones standing.
For Federer and Nadal, it will be the 10th time in 29 matches that they have met in a Grand Slam—though remarkably it is not in a final for only the second time. For Djokovic and Murray, though, it will be only their second ever Grand Slam face-off in 10 meetings, and the first happened to be in Melbourne just two days short of a year ago.
Murray and Djokovic had then—and still have—so much in common. Friends both on and off court, they were born within a week of each other, played their first Major and won their first ATP title in the same year, and lost their first Grand Slam final to Federer at the US Open. They have been bracketed together for years, yoked by their ages, weight of expectation and by their sparkling backhands, drop-shots and touch.
So last year, when they met in their first Grand Slam final, most expected it to be finely balanced.
However, helped not a little by a rousing Davis Cup victory just weeks before, a new mature, confident Djokovic was emerging, one who combined a patient game of tactical intelligence with an athleticism the equal of any man on the tour. Murray was left, after a straightforward, three-set dismissal, to watch the blossoming of his friend into the best player in the world and the winner of three Grand Slams and five Masters titles.
They have met twice since that Melbourne master-class. In the Rome semis, Murray came within touching distance of winning one of the best matches of the Masters circuit.
Then in Cincinnati, he won the title over a Djokovic gradually succumbing to a shoulder injury. And during the passing months of 2011, Murray began to show signs that he had looked and learned from his rival. He has won five titles in the last six months, has taken on Ivan Lendl in what looks like a player-coach marriage made in heaven, is now in his fifth straight Grand Slam semi-final—and looks more relaxed and confident than ever before.
The auspices are also good based on his run through this centenary Australian Open. Murray has made impressive progress since losing his only set of the tournament against a tricky first-round opponent, Ryan Harrison.
He has subsequently dropped, at most, only nine games a match and comes well-rested into his semi-final after beating No24 seed, Kei Nishikori, 6-3,6-3, 6-1. In that match, he showed a pleasing enthusiasm for coming to the net and an even more pleasing reward when he did so, winning 21 out of 25 shots.
Had No5 seed David Ferrer done the same against Djokovic, he may have made an important breakthrough in a second set that he came very close to winning in one of the Serb’s toughest work-outs so far.
Ferrer’s semi-final finish in Melbourne last year launched him into one of his best seasons since 2008. He reached the semi-finals at the World Tour Finals, beating a weary Djokovic in straight sets in the round robins, was a key contributor to Spain’s Davis Cup victory in December, and retained the title in Auckland just before the Australian Open.
Ferrer also pushed Djokovic to three sets in the Serb’s title-winning run in Madrid last year, and 21 energy-sapping minutes and three games into their Melbourne quarterfinal, he was clearly up for a dog-fight again.
Djokovic failed to convert break points in that initial spat but he did so in the fifth game after Ferrer lost an opening 35-stroke rally. Yet the battle raged through the whole set and Ferrer, repeatedly pounding the ball from the baseline, worked a break point in another 35-stroke rally as Djokovic served for the set. It was a drained-looking Serb who summoned a big serve and forehand to hold, 6-4, after an hour of play.
The second set opened with one of best points of the match—Ferrer ghosting in for a drop volley, picked up by Djokovic, smashed by Ferrer and finally picked off by an outrageous reach from Djokovic to make a winning pass.
With an immediate break, Djokovic built some rhythm off the constant barrage from Ferrer for a 2-0 lead. Ferrer’s next venture to the net, though, was successful: He is a sound and accurate volleyer, making it all the more surprising that he did not vary his tactics more often. Offered up some second serves in the fourth game, he attacked the net and forced the error to level: 2-2.
The Spaniard piled on the pressure, but the Serb got a second wind and broke. Ferrer was not done, though, and hustled still harder to break back. This would need a tie-break.
They changed ends, Ferrer leading 4-2, with precisely 74 points apiece, but under threat, Djokovic lifted his game and conceded not another point in the set.
Now facing the cleanest and most accurate baseline hitting of the match, Ferrer struggled to make any winners—just two in final set—and Djokovic surged to a 6-1 victory.
Djokovic admitted afterwards, “I wasn’t feeling very fresh after a one-hour set, I realised I had to step in.”
Indeed he had produced what he needed to against the brick wall that is Ferrer at the right moments. He will, though, have to find more of the same against Murray, and still more should he reach the final. Few doubt that he will.
Murray, for his part, looks strong and confident enough to take advantage if the Serb falls anywhere short of his best: a dejà-vu encounter, maybe, without a repeat of the 2011 result. And should Murray triumph this time to reach the final, it will be ‘dejà vu all over again’—his third Australian final in a row.
Perhaps it will be against the man who beat him in 2010, Federer, and perhaps against the man who beat him in three Grand Slam semi-finals in 2011, Nadal.
And perhaps this time, the growing self-belief of the man from Dunblane will bring a shaft of that Australian sunshine into the chilly grey winter of home.