Andy Murray is feeling great right now, which is definitely a new experience for him. He’s back in his first Grand Slam final since that unforgettable victory at Wimbledon in 2013. And given all the trials and tribulations he’s endured since that glorious moment, this current feat has to feel extremely sweet.
Just a few months after becoming the first British man in 77 years to take the title at the All England Club, Murray underwent back surgery. And not surprisingly, coming back from such a procedure has been far from easy.
Murray had to wait until the end of September of last year, a 14-month interlude, to reach a tour final again. Murray did win that Shenzhen final, along with two other trophies soon after in Vienna and Valencia. However, none of this silverware came at the big events. Murray was absent from all four Major finals in 2014, as well as the title matches of all eight Masters 1000 events he entered. Other lowlights from last year include his ranking slipping outside the Top 10, something that hadn’t happened since June 2008, and a dismal 0-8 record against the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. In fact, it was Federer – the only member of that triumvirate Murray previously held a winning record against – who struck the cruelest blow: A 6-0, 6-1 trouncing at the ATP World Tour Finals, which happened to take place in London.
As if a comeback from injury wasn’t enough adversity for Murray in 2014, there was also the small matter of a significant coaching change. The Scot’s successful (and one could say trend-setting) partnership with legend Ivan Lendl came to a sudden halt in March. Conflicting schedules were cited as the reason for the split, and Murray surprised the tennis world when he made the unconventional decision of hiring a former WTA player, two-time Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo, as his coach right before his title defense at Wimbledon. The partnership came under heavy scrutiny, something Murray himself addressed on Thursday after beating Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open semifinals:
“A lot of people were criticizing her at the end of last year, like the way I was playing was her fault when I’d spent two weeks training with her up to the end of the year. […] You can’t change things during tournaments. There was very little time to spend with each other. There’s no reason for her to be criticized.”
As if all of that change wasn’t enough, Murray decided to part ways with two long-time members of his team, Dani Vallverdu (who went on to become Berdych’s coach) and fitness trainer Jez Green, at the end of last year.
Given all of the above, it’s quite remarkable that we find Murray once again playing his best tennis, and finally back to the region of the rankings where he belongs. This run to the Australian Open final ensured the 27-year-old’s return to the top four, and a win would even see him leapfrog Rafael Nadal for the number three spot.
Can Andy Murray nab his third Grand Slam title? Absolutely. He has traditionally played well at this specific event, making runner-up appearances in 2010 (lost to Federer), 2011 and 2013 (lost to Djokovic on both occasions). Yes, Murray has only taken one set out of all those finals, but he has to feel that this time it’s different.
For starters, there’s the confidence of knowing that his body can survive the battle, having endured tough clashes in this event against Grigor Dimitrov (who swept Murray at Wimbledon last year), and Berdych (who still holds a positive head-to-head record against the Scot, despite the recent defeat). Murray can also be buoyed by what he saw on TV on Friday, when his opponent in Sunday’s final, Novak Djokovic, put together one of the most baffling displays in his storied career.
The World No. 1 was wildly erratic as well as passive (49 unforced errors were countered by only 27 winners) against defending champion Stan Wawrinka. Their utterly forgettable three-and-a-half-hour semifinal ended in a fifth set that Djokovic somehow swept. The lows for the Serb were many, but probably the one that takes the cake was the fourth set. Djokovic was up a break early on, seemingly in control of the match. However, that advantage quickly vanished, and the Serb finished the set with zero winners and 14 unforced errors.
Nonetheless, even after such a poor display, Djokovic doesn’t have to look that far in order find encouragement ahead of the final. First there’s the fact that he did survive that “strange” semifinal (Wawrinka’s words, not mine). Then there’s the knowledge that he’s never lost any of the four Australian Open finals he’s played. Djokovic can also look to his recent history against Murray and see that he’s not only won the past four meetings, but he’s barely been troubled in any of them.
A new installment of the Mirror Image Rivalry is upon us, and it’s probably dangerous to expect a classic. Simply put, these two men, separated in size by a single inch and in age by a measly week, are too similar to consistently produce great tennis. They’re arguably the two best returners of serve in the game, own two of the best backhands on tour, claim hardcourt as their preferred working environment and play phenomenal defense.
Sunday’s final will likely be an extremely physical, as well as tactical affair, like a cross between chess and MMA. Parts of the battle will inevitably be cagey, given the stakes and the best-of-five format. You just can’t afford to come out guns blazing and expect to sustain that level throughout three straight sets against a quality opponent. The outcome will likely depend on who can expose the other’s minor weaknesses more efficiently, who can execute the best in the key moments of every set and who can deal with the inevitable adversity in a positive way. Serves will be under siege by such great returners, and the baselines of Rod Laver Arena will surely suffer significant wear and tear.
A win for Murray will be a crowning achievement after all the adversity he’s faced in the past year and a half, as well as emphatic confirmation that he’s made a string of very good decisions about his career. For Djokovic, the title will see him confirmed as this era’s ruler of the Australian Open, given that he would surpass both Andre Agassi and Federer for most titles in Melbourne since the event moved from grass to hardcourt in 1988.
The stakes are high for both men, who have shown us they can play spectacular tennis against each other every once in a while. Here’s hoping that Sunday is one of those occasions.