Andy Murray became a part of a rare group on Friday when he defeated Stan Wawrinka as one of the players to make the finals of each slam event. He will face Novak Djokovic for the seventh time in a grand slam final, the joint-second most common final matchup after Federer-Nadal (8). Djokovic currently leads 4-2 in those finals with all four wins coming in Australia.
Only a few years ago was Murray written off as a poor player on clay, holding just one top 10 win on the surface for a very long time. While it was partly down to his schedule that saw him rarely compete outside of Masters 1000 events and the French Open, it was still troubling that he was unable to challenge the top players on the rare occasions he competed against them. Since the beginning of 2015, he is now 9-3 on clay against the top 10 including a very admirable 3-3 record against Djokovic and Nadal combined in that stretch.
In last year’s semi final, Djokovic was expected to cruise past Murray in the semi finals on the way to his first French Open. It didn’t quite happen like that, with Murray picking up the next two sets after going down 2-0 before running out of steam in the decider. While Stanislas Wawrinka played outstanding tennis in the final to defeat Djokovic, the additional time on court as a result of the match going five was far from ideal. This match, along with the Madrid Masters final title (def. Nadal in the final), will have given Murray a huge amount of confidence going into the 2016 clay season.
It peaked in Rome where Murray, who had never made the final before, won the 12th Masters 1000 title of his career with a straight sets victory over Novak Djokovic. He now had wins over his two biggest challenges on clay this year although it’s clear to see that both Djokovic and Nadal, were he fit, are much tougher beasts in the best of five format.
Meanwhile, it has seemed like Djokovic’s destiny to win in Paris and complete the grand slam for the past few years but circumstances have conspired against him. In 2012, the rain halted what could have been an impressive comeback from 2-0 down against Nadal while 2013 saw the infamous moment in the fifth set where Djokovic touched the net in the process of putting away a point which would have pushed him ever closer to victory over Nadal in the semi final. There was little controversial about the 2014 final as Nadal built further on his legacy in Paris. Once Djokovic got over the Nadal hump in 2015, he found an inspired Stanislas Wawrinka in the final who played some spellbinding tennis to once more deny the World No.1.
The Rome final saw some respite for Murray, who has had an awful time against Djokovic ever since he finally won Wimbledon in 2013. Since then Djokovic is 12-2 overall and 4-0 in slams. The lopsided head to head (now 10-23) and the tendency for their matches not to be as aesthetically pleasing, even if just as technically brilliant, has led to this matchup not attracting the same fanfare as others between the Big Four. With both players often failing to hit through each other, it often seemed like it was down to which player can outlast the other and when it comes down to that in best of five, Djokovic is rarely going to lose.
Djokovic is not going to be as attacking as Wawrinka was in the same final and will pose different problems to the ones that Murray appeared to solve relatively easily in the semi final. He won 61% of his points on second serve, something that he will need to repeat to have a chance against Djokovic, as well as earning 15 break points (taking 5) in the four set win over the 2015 champion. Coming out of the blocks quickly as he did in the semi final remains a must with all of his wins against Djokovic coming after winning the first set.
With history beckoning for Djokovic, it will be a major shock if he were to go 0-4 in his first four French Open finals. Murray has done enough to improve that he is now world class on clay and can take advantage if the Serbian gets nervous. However, Djokovic has to be the pick here to complete a run of four grand slam titles in a row.
Prediction – Novak Djokovic in four sets