French Open 2016: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray seek piece of history in Paris
Andy Murray will play Novak Djokovic on Sunday after becoming the first British man to reach a French Open final since 1937
It was, in the end, perhaps no surprise that the two best players in the world, No1 Novak Djokovic and No2 Andy Murray, who have collided twice in title matches in the last month—in Madrid and then in Rome—had made it through the last four at the French Open yet again.
Djokovic was into his eighth semi-final at Roland Garros; Murray into his fourth.
Djokovic was targeting his 20th Grand Slam final—to join Rafael Nadal at second on the all-time list; Murray was aiming for his 10th—and join Fred Perry for the most Major finals by a British man.
Djokovic had made the finals three times, but had yet to win and complete his career Grand Slam; Murray was after his first final in Paris, the only Major missing from his list—he would become the first British man since 1937 to do so.
Djokovic arrived here with an astonishing 42-3 2016 record, and 14-2 on clay; Murray had won fewer matches through the season but was 17-2 on clay.
Djokovic beat Murray at the Madrid Masters; Murray beat Djokovic at the Rome Masters.
And this time last year? Their semi-final contest was an epic five-setter, won by Djokovic.
Things had fallen well for Djokovic in a draw that originally promised nine-time champion Rafael Nadal in the semis but ended without either the Spaniard or the next highest ranked man in the half, home favourite and No6 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—both withdrawing with injury; Murray almost stumbled in the early rounds against qualifier Radek Stepanek and wild card Mathias Bourgue, but then dispatched his three following seeds for the loss of just one set.
Djokovic had faced cancellations and delays during the second week of the tournament, playing back-to-back days after a washed out Monday and repeated showers; Murray suffered the same problems in the first week.
But come second Friday, while it was unseasonably cold, and the ground still heavy and damp, it was not raining, and both men would complete their semi-finals uninterrupted, unlike their epic last year which was played over Friday and Saturday.
On paper, there was no doubting who had the more formidable job, though. Murray played defending champion and No3 seed Stan Wawrinka, whose blistering tennis had ripped open the game and heart of Djokovic in last year’s final. That the Swiss had beaten Murray in their last three matches only made matters worse.
But Murray’s clay-court tennis since back surgery in 2013 has become stronger, more flexible, and more confident in all facets. The ATP’s statistics even suggested that Murray had put together the best winning percentage on the red stuff since winning his first two clay titles last year.
And it showed. Despite the challenge posed by the huge and aggressive tennis of Wawrinka on his opening serve, Murray survived break points and 10 minutes to hold, and went on to use his consummate net skills to break in the third game.
After almost an hour of high-quality tennis, Murray survived another epic 10-minute closing game and three break points to take the set, 6-4.
The crowd was firmly behind the Swiss and his explosive, one-handed game, but Murray was up to the test. He broke early in the second set, too, with some masterful touch at the net, and defended strongly against Wawrinka’s drives to the extreme corners. Another break in the fifth and the Briton was as good as home and dry in a 29-minute, 6-2 masterclass.
But the battle was far from done: Wawrinka lifted the crowd’s support, punched the air, roared himself to greater effort, and as Djokovic was completing his rather swifter match on Suzanne Lenglen, the Swiss surged to 5-4 on serve and broke from 15-40 down to grab the third set, 6-4. He sprinted to his chair as Philippe Chatrier rose to its feet.
Yet Murray was not fazed: He pointed his index finger to his temple, roared himself to ‘come on’, and got straight back to business with a break to love in the opening game of the fourth. He pulled off two jaw-dropping backhand drop-shot winners to pressure the Swiss in the third game, too, but Wawrinka held off the onslaught until the seventh game. Another break left Murray to serve out the win, 6-2, after two and a half hours.
Such was the moment, such the quality, such the achievement, that Murray was almost overcome with emotion as he tried to conduct his on-court interview.
“I’m extremely proud. I never expected to reach the final here. I’d always struggled on the clay and then in the past two years I’ve had some of my best results… I knew today if I wanted to win I was going to have to play one of my best clay-court matches. Stan’s record here has been unbelievable. [But] I played one of my best matches today. I’m looking forward to the final now.”
So for a 34th time, he will face Djokovic, who was too good for the young No13 seed Dominic Thiem.
The 22-year-old Austrian, playing in his first Grand Slam semi, and with more clay match-wins this year than any other man—25, including two titles and a final—will now break the top 10. However, having played more matches this year than anyone else, 51 of them, he could not find enough to hold off Djokovic.
The Serb advanced in an hour and three-quarters, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, with a clinical and contained performance, making just 15 winners but also just 15 errors.
So the Serb’s dream remains alive: He aims to become the first male player to hold all four Major titles at one time since Rod Laver in 1969. But first, he has to beat the man he knows inside out. He and Murray were born just a week apart and grew up together through juniors.
In recent years, Djokovic has had the upper hand, with 23 wins to 10, four Major wins to two. But their form of late, especially on clay, suggests this will be a close one—and it may just be the moment when Murray once again makes British tennis.