Australian Open: Murray standing on brink of history
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were born a week apart and have been the best players of their generation ever since they first met at an under-12s tournament in Tarbes in south-west France 13 years ago.
Court master: Andy Murray prepares to hit a sliced backhand on his way to victory over David Ferrer in their semi-final at the Australian Open yesterday
They grew up as friends, still play football against each other and practise together regularly. Tomorrow they will meet here in the final of the Australian Open.
"I won 6-0, 6-1 maybe," Murray said last night as he recalled their first encounter. "A lot's changed since then, I'm sure. It will be just a bit tougher than that on Sunday."
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two greatest players of recent times, back home in Europe, their pride and body respectively battered by defeats here, there could be no more fitting line-up for the first Grand Slam final of what could be a new era for the men's game.
"We're good friends, so in terms of a rivalry, I hope this will be the start of us playing each other in big matches," Murray said.
Twenty-four hours after Djokovic blasted Federer off the court, Murray earned a place in his third Grand Slam final with a masterful 4-6, 7-6, 6-1, 7-6 victory over David Ferrer.
Seventy-five years after the last Grand Slam singles triumph by a British man, Murray now has his best chance yet to earn a place in history, having lost to Federer in the finals of the US Open in 2008 and here 12 months ago.
Djokovic, who won his only Grand Slam title here, will be a formidable opponent, but Murray believes the experience from those past disappointments will help him cope better this time. The 23-year-old Scot said that last year's defeat to Federer, which left him in tears, had made him "a better player, stronger mentally.
Though he added: "I'm playing against a great player. Novak played unbelievable tennis against Roger. It's one of those matches where, if I play very well, I will definitely be in with a shot of winning, but I will need to play my best tennis."
If Djokovic will have the advantage of an extra day's rest, the conditions should favour Murray.
The last fortnight has been one of the coolest in living memory for this tournament, but a daytime temperature of 41C is forecast for tomorrow. Even when the match starts at 7.30pm (8.30am GMT), 34C is predicted.
While Murray has repeatedly proved his durability, Djokovic has sometimes struggled. Two years ago he retired with heat exhaustion in the fourth set of his quarter-final here.
This will be their first meeting for nearly two years. Usually ranked No 3 and No 4, they have nearly always been in opposite halves of the draw for the bigger tournaments.
Djokovic, who is a week younger, was the quicker player to settle on the senior circuit and won their first four meetings. Murray, however, has won the last three, the last two in Masters Series finals.
Having drifted apart for a while, they have grown closer again in recent times. "We always got on well," Murray said. "I've spent a lot more time with him. We've had quite a lot of the same experiences over the last few years.
“We have obviously got a lot in common, but the last year or so we've spent a lot more time practising together. We always mes
sage each other if we do well in tournaments. He's a very nice guy and good fun to be around. I'll be putting that to one side on Sunday, but hopefully we'll be friends afterwards."
Both men will be playing on their favourite surface in a match that will be a contrast of styles between two great athletes.
With the exception of his occasionally suspect serve, Djokovic has no weaknesses. Striking the ball with great power from the baseline, he even outhit Federer.
Murray, who has the game's best backhand and is more comfortable at the net, is a counter-puncher who likes to unsettle opponents with his variations of pace and spin.
"You have to play solid," Murray said when asked how he could beat Djokovic. "He doesn't give you many errors.”
As he prepares for the final, Murray will try to block out of his mind the possible historical significance.
“It's more of a personal dream," he said. "That's really what you need to keep in check and not get ahead of yourself.
“The historical thing is not something that I've thought about that much. For me personally I want to try and win, but I also don't want to get myself so pumped up that I play a stinker.”