Head-to-Head: The rivalry began when they were 11 ½. Andy Murray, a week older, prevailed. As pros, though, Novak Djokovic holds a narrow 8-6 advantage. This year they’ve split four matches, with the Serb taking their epic Australia Open semifinal and the Scot grabbing their Olympic semifinal. Djokovic leads 6-5 on hard courts. In big career matches—the majors plus the Olympics—Djokovic leads 2-1.
Djokovic — Slight Edge
Grand Slam Finals: Djokovic got off to an auspicious start by beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets (after upsetting Roger Federer) in the 2008 Australian final as an inexperienced 20-year-old. Overall, he’s 5-3 in major finals, with two losses coming at the US Open, in 2007 to Federer in his prime and in 2010 to Nadal in his best year. In sharp contrast, Murray, usually crumbling under the pressure, is a dismal 0-4 with his only respectable performance a four-set loss to Federer in the Wimbledon final two months ago.
Djokovic — Big Edge
Physical Condition: Both Djokovic and Murray rank among the fittest athletes in the world. Neither player had to face the sport’s giants at this Open. Rafael Nadal did not enter because of knee problems and Roger Federer was upset by Tomas Berdych. Djokovic had a tougher draw, beating No. 4 David Ferrer and No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro, but lost only one set before the final, while Murray lost two sets. Djokovic spent 5 hours and 17 minutes less on the court in their six matches. Murray won his semifinal against Berdych on Saturday and rested Sunday, while Djokovic had to play three relatively quick sets plus a game of his suspended match against Ferrer on Sunday.
Technique: Both possess powerful first serves, but Djokovic’s second serve has more power and placement. Both own terrific backhands, but Djokovic’s backhand serve return is a bigger and more consistent weapon, as is his down-the-line backhand during rallies. Although Murray’s forehand has become more powerful and versatile this year, Djokovic’s is better because he pulls the trigger more often for big shots. Their volleying technique and athleticism at net are excellent.
Defense: Djokovic and Murray, like Federer and Nadal, are superb defenders. They all are great sprinters and have outstanding hand-eye coordination to reach and return—sometimes with amazingly aggressive shots—powerful shots on the dead run from seemingly impossible positions. Their first-rate anticipation and agility add to their court coverage, and their stamina allows them to defend well when they lesser players tire and slow down. Their spectacular defense will turn some big points and big games around in the final.
Tactics: After an opening semifinal set when the gusting winds—which Djokovic called “the worst conditions I’ve ever played in”—befuddled both Djokovic and Murray more than their opponents, Murray regrouped smartly by seldom over-hitting or under-hitting and not hitting too close to the lines. Djokovic was fortunate to play three-quarters of his semifinal on Sunday which had only light winds. Generally, Murray is a more clever tactician, particularly against lesser foes, but the fast pace of the final will make shot execution and high-percentage shot selection more important than tactics. However, look for two tactics that both players will use to put the other out of position: wide serves and sharply angled crosscourt groundstrokes.
Other Factors: A tiebreaker or two or even three may determine the winner. Djokovic has a 13-9 tiebreaker record this year, including 1-0 at the Open. Murray is a terrific 18-5, including 4-0 at the Open. He also enjoys a career 5-2 TB edge over Djokovic. Djokovic won their only five-set match, and his career five-set record of 17-5 is slightly better than Murray’s 12-6. Keep an eye on two other key stats: 2nd serve points and break points won. Djokovic impressively won 59% of his second serve points against Ferrer and 55% against Del Potro. He converted 6 of 9 break points against Ferrer and 4 of 13 against Del Potro. The crowd will probably split evenly between the engaging Serb and the underdog Scot going for his first Grand Slam title. The crowd will likely want this final, which will feature scintillating shotmaking, to last at least four sets and preferably five with a tiebreaker for a fitting climax.
Prediction: Tennis fans will be treated to a rip-roaring, fluctuating final that matches Serena Williams’ 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 thriller over Victoria Azarenka. Murray will battle valiantly to gain his first major title, but fall short again as Djokovic, in the prime of his brilliant career, ultimately prevails 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6.
Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.