Melbourne: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray’s burgeoning grand slam rivalry turns another page on Sunday, with the two iron-men of tennis bracing for a world of pain when they clash in the final of the Australian Open.
Although good friends off the court dating back to their junior days, the two 25-year-olds hold no quarter once they cross the white lines, and have made a habit of punishing each other in gruelling five-set duels at the grand slams.
Briton Murray lost a near-five hour battle to eventual champion Djokovic in the semi-finals last year, but avenged the defeat in a five-set thriller to win the US Open and his maiden grand slam title.
“I hope it’s a painful match because that will mean it’s a good one,” Murray told the centre court crowd after grinding down Roger Federer in five sets in the semi-final.
Double defending champion Djokovic, who played the longest ever grand slam final against Rafa Nadal last year, has also resigned himself to an attritional slog to capture his third Melbourne Park title in a row.
“Considering the fact that every time we played in last probably six, seven encounters, it was always a long matches, physically very demanding, going three sets and five sets in grand slams,” the world number one told reporters.
“So I guess we have to expect something similar to happen, long rallies, and I’m ready for that.”
Both have a chance to write themselves into history.
Djokovic will bid to become the first man since tennis went professional in 1969 to win the Australian Open final three years in a row while third seed Murray, who defeated Djokovic at the US Open for his long-awaited maiden grand slam title, has a chance to become the first man in the professional era to win a second major immediately after his first.
Whatever the result, tennis fans are likely to regard themselves the winners should the pair turn on a marathon.
Fans were long spoiled by the all-consuming rivalry between Federer and Nadal that dominated the men’s game for the better part of last decade.
But with queries about Spaniard Nadal’s creaky knees and with the sun slowly setting on Federer’s glittering career, Djokovic and Murray have taken over their legacy and appear primed to carry it on for years to come.
Despite losing to Murray at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic appears to hold all the aces Down Under, where he pounded Scotland’s Murray in three sets to win the 2011 trophy.
The Serb has won three of his five grand slam titles Down Under and showed his affections for the country on its national day on Saturday by wearing a small toy koala on his lapel at his pre-match media conference.
Djokovic has also been on fire in the leadup, his three-set demolition of fourth seed David Ferrer one of the most one-sided grand slam semi-finals in recent memory.
Murray, for his part, was made to the go the distance in five sets against Federer on Friday, and will have one day less than Djokovic to recover and prepare.
“I think that speaks to Djokovic’s advantage in the finals,” said eight-times grand slam champion Andre Agassi, a four-time winner at Melbourne Park. “Out of those three guys, whoever has to beat two of them is at a serious disadvantage.”
Setting aside the physical toll of his victory over Federer, Murray will at least head into the clash with renewed faith in his mental fortitude having stared down the Swiss and beaten him for a first time at the grand slams.
When serving for the match, Murray was shaken when 17-times grand slam champion Federer turned the match on its head to take it into a fifth set.
The Murray of a year ago may have crumbled to defeat, but on Friday it was Federer who wilted under the pressure, as the Scot marched to a galvanising victory.
“I’ve been questioned for large parts of my career about physically would I be strong enough, mentally would it be strong enough, do I listen to my coaches, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever it is, can I handle pressure,” Murray said. “I think those years of having all of those questions and then finally to be able to answer them, I think it was all part of the process.
“So I hope on Sunday I can play a good match. Obviously having won against Novak before in a slam final will help mentally.”