The shadow cast by the transcendent tennis player of this or any era, Roger Federer, fell on Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for several years.
Except for rare occasions like Federer snapping at Djokovic’s over-zealous parents in Monte Carlo in 2008 or making critical observations about Murray’s limited gamestyle in Dubai that same year, the relationship between the three has been sensibly cordial – notwithstanding a brief, testy, exchange between Federer and Murray late during Friday night’s semifinal at Rod Laver Arena.
By comparison with the ‘wanting to wring your neck’ venom of Jimmy Connors toward younger rivals John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl 30 years ago, Federer has been dotingly parental.
And as they have emerged to pre-eminent status of their own, Djokovic and Murray have always been as friendly as two competitive sportsmen can be, connected as they are by birthdays just seven days apart in May 1987.
Before Wimbledon last year, Djokovic was holidaying in Britain and texted Murray a picture of a landmark when he discovered that he was in the vicinity of the Scot’s hometown of Dunblane.
As 18-year-olds in 2006, they were doubles partners at the Australian Open.
The two are larger-than-life icons in their respective homelands. In 2011, Djokovic received the Order of Saint Sava of the First Degree, the highest decoration awarded by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Murray’s recognition in his Scottish homeland has been more of the less formal variety, with hundreds of his Dunblane fellow-citizens chanting “there is only one Andy Murray” in the wee hours after he won the US Open last September.
On the court, the 25-year-olds have played 17 times dating back to 2006. Djokovic leads 10-7. Most recently, Murray won last year’s US Open final over the Serb 7-6(10) 7-5 2-6 3-6 6-2, but Djokovic prevailed in their two subsequent 2012 meetings in Shanghai and at the year-end championships in London.
The most unforgettable was Shanghai, where Murray led by a set, 5-4 and serving at 30-love when Djokovic used an unlikely one-two combination – a between-the-legs shot followed by a drop shot – to win the point. That reversed the momentum, and he wound up saving five match points before taking the most improbable of victories.
There could be – maybe will be – dramatic turnarounds in Sunday night’s final because their levels are so close and their games so similar. Both are based on supreme athleticism and a fine balance between offensive and defensive skill-sets. In last year’s Australian Open semifinal, it required a brutal four hours and 50 minutes to work things out – Djokovic prevailing by the slimmest of 6-3 3-6 6-7(4) 6-1 7-5 margins.
“Every time we play each other, it’s normally a very physical match,” Murray said after overcoming Federer. “He (Djokovic) is an unbelievable mover and we have so many long rallies.”
Murray is prepared to suffer. “I’ll need to be ready for the pain,” he added about the final, “and I hope it’s a painful match. That means it’ll be a good one.”
So, it’s Murray going for a second Grand Slam title in a row after Flushing Meadows, and Djokovic trying to win an Open Era record third consecutive Australian Open.
Just before midnight on Friday, after Murray’s semi-final win, a roadside bagpiper played, with a picture of Murray positioned in front of him, as spectators neared the Richmond train station not far from Melbourne Park.
If those forlorn drones and wails are heard again at the same spot late Sunday night, it’s a good bet they’re chanting “there’s only one Andy Murray” in the land where a man is never freer than under his plaid kilt.
TOM’S INTREPID TIP
Djokovic def. Murray in four: Wherever your heart may be, the head says that an extra day’s rest and a much easier semifinal has to tip the scales slightly in Nole’s favour, no matter how super-fit the great Scot may be.