A straightforward preview of tonight’s Aussie Open final

31 Jan

Murray-Djok

Tonight’s Australian Open final pits world number one and seven-time major champion Novak Djokovic against Scottish two-time slam winner Andy Murray. As Djokovic reminded the media after his five-set semifinal win against Swiss sensation Stan Wawriwinka, he and Murray have known each other since they were twelve. The two have now been dueling for major championships at the junior and professional levels for the better part of two decades.

Much is at stake for both players. For Djok, victory in Melbourne would deepen the momentum he picked up at the end of last year and position him to make 2015 a banner year. Coupled with the Serb’s all-court game, a strong start at the Aussie could provide the confidence he needs to do something downright historic, by winning the calendar grand slam – all four majors between January and December in a single year – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Rod Laver did it back in ’79.

For Murray, overcoming Djokovic to win the Australian Open would dust the final bit of detritus off of an altogether sub-par 2014. The Scot built confidence in the latter stages of the season, his partnership with French former world number one Amelie Mauresmo bearing fruit in the form of increased confidence, better tactics, and, seemingly, more enjoyment playing the game. Collecting the title Sunday night would also leave Murray with three of tennis’ 4 major titles, making a French Open crown the only barrier standing between the Scot and the career grand slam, achievement of which would secure Murray’s place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame and, more importantly, help fulfill the awesome talent he has always possessed but for most of his career failed to realize.

In terms of predictions, you can throw em out the window. Vegas will give an edge to Djok, both because he’s ranked higher and because he’s bested Murray in 65 percent of their head-to-head match-ups (although both of Murray’s major title wins (U.S. Open ’12, Wimbledon ’13) came against the Serb, and the two have split the four major championship matches they’ve contested). Tonight’s final will come down to which player shows up more ready to play (what an insight!). The players actually have fairly similar games, relying on extraordinary agility, uncanny shotmaking instincts, and the ability to transition from offense to defense at the slightest opportunity.

Djok has the game’s best return. So, tactically, Murray will need to maintain a high first-serve percentage and mix up patterns to keep the Serb off balance. He also needs to be the aggressor, keep Djok on the run, and look to come to net as much as possible. Djokovic has shown repeatedly, including in his semi win Friday night against Wawrinka, that falling into a defensive posture can prove a winning formula; but that won’t be the case for Murray, who needs to maintain his foot on the gas and play confident, aggressive ball in order to win.

For Djok, the key will be remaining positive, serving well, and seizing opportunities to take control of points. Although he can win defensively, Djok will have a much easier time – both physically and mentally – if he is able to win a decent percentage of points quickly, with winners, particularly on his serve. Doing so would allow the Serb to conserve energy and steel himself for the physical taxation he will have to endure in order to retrieve Murray’s offensive body blows and find a way to break the Scot’s serve.

Although Djoker has the edge in this department, both players have excellent returns and should look to attack their opponent’s second serves should their first serve percentages begin to dip.

I hesitate to make any predictions, knowing that the outcome of the contest will hinge on some Sartreian determination of which player chooses to play their best ball. A big part of me wants to play it safe and call Djok surging to his first major title in a historic year. But I can’t shake this strange feeling that Murray’s got the right vibe heading into this match, with mind, spirit, and body – credit to Mauresmo – resembling that of a champion.

And then there’s the X factor, namely whether or not Djokovic’s strategic advisor, Boris Becker, somehow convinced him that an hours-long crawl of Melbourne’s finest beer gardens somehow constituted appropriate night-before preparation for a grand slam final. To the extent that Djokovic succumbed to such logic, then one has to give a (non-trivial) edge to Scotland’s pride.

(A sidebar: If Murray wins tonight, should Britain yet again be able to appropriate his triumph as that of a native son? I’ve asked this question repeatedly, but it’s taken on new significance since Murray publicly endorsed Scotland’s bid for independence in a referendum last September.)

Enjoy the match, folks.

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