Top-ranked Novak Djokovic survived his much anticipated battle with Andy Murray on Wednesday night at the US Open, edging the Scot 7-6(1), 6-7(1), 6-2, 6-4 and booking a Saturday date with Slam semifinal debutant Kei Nishikori of Japan.
Heading into the draw for this year's Open, one of the most persistent questions on people's minds was quite simple: where would Andy Murray land? The Scot was seeded 8th, which meant he could end up playing one of the co-favorites for the title, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, as early as the quarterfinals.
As it was, Murray ended up in Djokovic's quarter of the draw, thus triggering the possibility of a repeat of the 2012 US Open final. Back then, the Scot got off the Grand Slam schnide (he had lost 4 major finals before that point) in a tense, windy and convoluted five set affair.
This year, both men did their duty through four rounds, and thus arrived at their prime-time encounter last night with a fair share of expectations from fans and pundits alike.
If the Big Four era of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray has been an embarrassment of riches in terms of rivalries, the Djokovic-Murray combination of the matrix has been the proverbial black sheep. Mainly because the first tenet of rivalry creation – contrast between the opponents in as many elements as possible – is not often on display when they face off.
Andy and Novak were born just seven days apart in May of 1987 (the former is the elder), and they've known each other since they were children. They're both right-handers who easily call their great two-handed backhands their best shot. They're both extraordinary defenders and they also happen to be two of the best humans at returning serve.
Personality-wise, their flames burn rather brightly on court, sometimes so brightly that they end up engulfing themselves in the flames with no extinguisher in sight. Murray's frustration is usually directed at himself, or at the poor souls he employs to sit in his box (two-time Major winner Amelie Mauresmo now chairs that unit). Similarly, Djokovic can easily grow frustrated with his play, his opponent's play, his box and even the crowd.
The differences appear when the men are not frustrated. Murray's quiet, dry wit (delivered in his trademark monotone) is arguably on the opposite end of the spectrum of the man many call the Djoker. The current World No. 1 has done everything from impressions of his colleagues to on-court choreography.
Likewise, if you start to look closer at their games, more differences become evident.
Murray's first serve is bigger and more dangerous than Djokovic's, though it's less reliable (for the year, Djokovic has hit 67 percentage 1st serves, a phenomenal mark that's good for 7th best on tour. Murray lags at the number 40 spot with 61 percent). In terms of second serve, it's no contest: the Serb has a smart, dependable and efficient delivery, while Murray's has always been one of his blatant weaknesses. Last night, Murray's second serves were 9 mph slower, on average, than Djokovic's, and at one point he hit a second serve clocked at a comical 69 mph. It goes without saying that Djokovic obliterated it.
Andy actually has a much better one-handed backhand slice, and he has always been a better volleyer than his long-time colleague. However, the last major difference is in the forehand department, where Djokovic enjoys more power, more consistency and a more overt willingness to punish an opponent with it.
Given all that, it might come as no surprise that this match-up has been dubbed the mirror-image rivalry, which helps explain why only three of their matches have been superb (in case you're wondering, I'm talking about this one, and this one and this one). The other 17 are probably best forgotten.
But back to last night. Another unexpected element had somehow contrived to raise the expectations for Djokovic-Murray XXI: earlier in the day, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka played a phenomenal five-setter that was going to be incredibly difficult to follow. That battle (which Nishikori won 6-4 in the fifth for the second time in as many days) ended up taking over four hours, running into the night session's start time of 7 p.m. ET.
Given that Djokovic and Murray have already played two five-set matches that almost reached the 5 hour mark, people were concerned that the 2:26 a.m. record for latest end to a US Open session was going to be obliterated, and not merely equaled. Djokovic and Murray didn't help matters by playing a 73-minute opening set.
Now that the dust has settled, it's clear that the best tennis of the evening was mostly contained during this wild, mesmerizing stanza. It started off as one of the "bad" Djokovic-Murray sets of tennis. There were long, cagey rallies. There were unforced errors born out of frustration at the defensive excellence. There were other unforced mishaps that had more to do with the nerves of playing a high stakes match against an opponent you know extremely well. But midway through the first set, the fireworks began.
Amidst the four breaks of serve early on, the caution started to give way to wild abandon, and pure baseline tennis glory ensued. Djokovic and Murray danced around the backline firing lasers that the other would impossibly scramble to not only put in play, but to return with interest. At 4-all, the men played perhaps the craziest of these exchanges, which ended with Djokovic demanding a roar from the Ashe crowd. Murray won the next exchange and did the same.
Unfortunately, such a fantastic passage of tennis ended in a rather unfortunate way. Down 0-1 in the inevitable first set tiebreaker, Murray produced a double fault that was borderline grotesque: it missed the service box by several feet. Such a crass error was augmented when down 1-4, Andy botched what seemed like a straightforward short forehand by letting it fly several feet long. Soon after, Djokovic clinched the tiebreaker with a thumping 7-1 scoreline. The set we had just watched surely deserved a better conclusion than that.
The second set was a mostly unremarkable affair, up until the business end of the set. It once again reached a tiebreaker, this time mostly due to Novak Djokovic's inability to hold a lead. The Serb was up a break twice (at 2-1 and 4-3), but Murray easily found openings to make the edge disappear. Things got interesting when, near the end of the set, Andy started blasting forehands left and right.
The Scot's main issue with the forehand over the years has been his inability to hit the ball on the rise with that stroke, which gives his opponents more time to prepare for his attack. Making things worse, Andy doesn't consistently use that extra time to his advantage by loading up his forehands with pace. Instead, he often ends up producing forehands that are either easily defended, or outright attacked.
None of the above applied to a 30-minute patch in the second set where Andy seemingly forgot how he usually hits forehands and instead proceeded to accurately fire away missile after missile from every part of the court.
Almost in sync, Djokovic seemed to go through his own 30-minute bout of forehand amnesia. But in his case, it wasn't for the best. The recent Wimbledon champ brought back memories of 2009 and 2010, when he struggled mightily with that essential stroke. Djokovic forehands were flying: long, wide and into the net. Hence, Murray was able to return the favor in this second set tiebreaker and take it 7-1.
The third set saw Murray's forehand god-mode peter out, while Djokovic seemed to make a smart adjustment and added a lot more spin on his shots, making them safer. As a consequence, Djokovic took an early break lead that he actually managed to hold onto. Andy's game had regressed, he couldn't convert on a few chances to get the break back and instead he gifted us one of his trademark self-flagellating rants:
Soon after, the wheels came off. Djokovic ended up breaking serve once again, and took the set 6-2.
The fourth and final set was characterized by the physical toll the match seemed to take on Murray. In the third, Andy had already complained that his legs were letting him down, and things looked bleak for the Scot when the trainer was summoned in the fourth with what seemed like a warm compress that Murray immediately put on his lower back during a changeover. Prior to that, Andy also had put on a compression undershirt. Those were worrying signs for his fans, given that a back injury led to his surgery after last year's US Open. Murray later claimed that he didn't feel an injury - just stiffness in his back and hips.
Both men carried on in energy-conservation mode, until what seemed like an obvious last stand: Murray serving to stay in the tournament at 4-5. There was little drama as Djokovic broke serve to take the match and finish an eventful day at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center well short of the now famous 2:26 a.m. record time.
Thus ended another installment of the mirror-image rivalry. It won't be counted among their greatest battles, but we should do well to remember that for a good 40 minutes they gifted us with simply sublime tennis.
The rest is probably best forgotten.