MELBOURNE -- You don't need to tell Andy Murray the numbers. He's well aware. As the two-time Grand Slam champion prepares for his fourth Australian Open final on Sunday against four-time Australian Open champion and No. 1 Novak Djokovic, he knows is the underdog.
"I know it's going to be extremely difficult to win the match tomorrow," Murray told reporters on Saturday. "I know if I want to win, it will probably be very, very tough and challenging physically. So I need to prepare myself mentally for that. But he has a fantastic record here. He obviously loves the court and the conditions. And, yeah, it would be a big upset if I manage to win tomorrow."
Djokovic leads their head-to-head 15-8 and has gone 4-2 against Murray at the Slams. In most of the matches they play all you can see is Djokovic doing everything just a little bit better than Murray. The two, born a week apart, have been the primary challengers to the duopoly of major titles held by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Djokovic is the one that succeeded in firmly planting himself among them, taking a crowbar to the ATP's Big 2 to make it a Big Three. Murray soon followed by turning it into a Big Four, and with his run here in Melbourne he will return to No. 4 on Monday, and could move to No. 3 if he wins the title.
"The fact we know each other since 11, 12," said Djokovic of his rivalry with Murray. "There is only week difference between us. Very similar game and very similar role to professional tennis. So I think that's what makes it very special."
Despite his head-to-head record and success on the courts in Melbourne, Djokovic downplayed his role as the heavy favorite going into Sunday's showdown. "I'm sure we both know what to expect from each other's game. The fact that I won last seven out of eight matches, of course it's going to serve as a great confidence booster coming into the match. There's no clear favorite. I think the way he's been playing, he already knows what it takes to win a Grand Slam title," he said.
But there is more than a little reason to believe that Murray can pull off the upset. His two major titles have come at the expense of Djokovic. He broke through to win his first Slam at the 2012 U.S. Open, defeating Djokovic in a wind-strewn and nervous match to win 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. Djokovic returned the favor at the Australian Open in January, beating Murray 6-7(2), 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-2. But Murray followed it up nine months later to win Wimbledon 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. In both losses, Djokovic came out flat. At Wimbledon, Djokovic struggled to recover after being taken to the hilt by Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinal, needing nearly five hours to get the job done. Murray cleaned him up with a 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 win.
Much like that Wimbledon in 2013, Murray came into Melbourne this year under the radar. He was gifted the worst draw possible, projected to have to get through Grigor Dimitrov, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal just to make the final. And just like at Wimbledon that fateful year, both Federer and Nadal fell early, opening up the draw for him to get through without much trouble. And now, just like at Wimbledon, he faces Djokovic, who needed three and a half physical hours to beat No. 4 Stan Wawrinka on Friday night.
And yet, the numbers are what they are. Murray has never beaten Djokovic in Melbourne in their three matchups and two of his losses were in the final match. He's also lost his last four matches to the Serb, winning just one set. On form, Murray has the edge. Djokovic looked unbeatable through five matches but played a poor match against Wawrinka. It's a match he could have easily lost in straight sets if not for Wawrinka's nerves and Djokovic's legs keeping him within striking distance. Murray chose not to disrupt his routine to watch the other semifinal on Friday night. "I didn't really want to sit for three, three and a half hours last night worrying about the match," Murray said. "I'd rather save that for this evening and try and conserve a little bit of energy and mental energy for the match."
One x-factor for Murray is Amelie Mauresmo. In an eloquent and pointed defense of his coach on Thursday night after he beat No. 7 Tomas Berdych in the semifinals, Murray made it clear that at least some of his motivation over the fortnight has been to vindicate his decision to hire the two-time Slam champion, and repay her for going out on a limb to join his team knowing that she would be under intense scrutiny.
"A lot of people criticized me working with her and I think so far this week we've shown that women can be very good coaches as well," Murray said after his semifinal win. "So I'm very thankful for Amelie for doing it. It was a brave choice for her to do it and hopefully I can repay her in a couple of days." Before going to bed that night, Murray sent one more tweet on the subject:
As Murray has proven over the course of his career, he is never better than when he's playing with a chip on his shoulder after being told he can't -- or shouldn't -- do something. You saw that fire when he was chasing his first Slam title at the U.S. Open and against when he won Wimbledon. After a year of struggling after injury and a change in coaching teams, he's back to playing with that hunger again. You saw it in his feisty match against Tomas Berdych, who is now coached by his ex-coach Dani Vallverdu. Murray looked like a man intent on sending a message, as Vallverdu left Murray's team over a disagreement about Mauresmo's hiring last summer.
"I knew I needed to work on a lot of things, but I also believed that with the right attitude and the right work ethic and the right people behind me that I'd be able to get back to playing my best again," Murray said. He credits a solid training block during the off-season with Mauresmo as helping him address the weaknesses that crept back into his game last year, which saw him play too passively and his forehand break down. In Melbourne he has been cracking that shot and holding his position on the baseline, while continuing to play the type of defense that makes him incredibly tough to hit through. Don't think Djokovic hasn't taken notice of Murray's improvement.
"I think he's going for the shots," Djokovic said. "I think if he serves well, that's a huge confidence boost and advantage for him. He feels that he's more relaxed on the court and he can swing through his shots from the baseline. I think the forehand has improved, judging by the matches he has played the matches during these couple weeks compared to a few months ago. The courts are playing a little bit faster in the last two years than it was the previous years in Rod Laver Arena as we mentioned before. Because they are faster, because the ball is bouncing a bit lower, that's pretty suitable to his style of the game."
A win for Djokovic would make him the second man in history to win five or more Australian Open titles. As the Serb goes for his eighth major title at the venue where he won his first six years ago, he insists that any concerns about the state of his game after the semifinals is already behind him.
"It would mean everything, of course," Djokovic said about the prospect of No. 5. "Getting to the finals is already a great achievement. But now this is the match for which you have worked for now two months. This is where you want to be."
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