Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have split their four 2012 meetings, but Murray won most recently at the Olympics. (Zumapress)
On Sunday afternoon, a talented 18-year-old Canadian named Filip Peliwo capped a fantastic junior Grand Slam season by winning the U.S. Open boys' title over Great Britain's Liam Broady. Peliwo became the first boy to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back since Grigor Dimtrov in 2008 and the first player to reach all four junior major titles in the same year since Stefan Edberg in 1983.
While Peliwo celebrated, his opponent walking slowly to the net with his head bowed for the customary handshake. Broady, a talented lefty who has served as a practice partner for the likes of Rafael Nadal, lost the second Slam final of his junior career. He lost the first to Australia's Luke Saville at Wimbledon last year (Saville would capture another title at the Australian Open this year) and now he'd dropped another one to a kid from a country with little tennis tradition who was having the best year of his career.
As a friend of mine joked, "Liam Broady is very good at British tennis."
Andy Murray will take the court on Monday afternoon against defending champion Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final and attempt to do many things. Beat Djokovic at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. Win his first Slam final in five tries. And force everyone to shelve this British tennis joke for at least another 76 years.
As far as rivalries go, Djokovic-Murray doesn't have the history of Roger Federer-Nadal, the memorable physicality of Nadal-Djokovic or the edge of Federer-Djokovic. The lack of drama comes from the players themselves, who have spent their careers so focused on running down Federer and Nadal that there really is no tension between them. Born a week apart, the two 25-year-olds share an obvious respect and affinity for each other. Before Murray played his wind-swept semifinal against Tomas Berdych on Saturday, Murray and Djokovic huddled around a laptop to watch a stream of the World Cup qualifying game between Scotland and Serbia. The game ended in a scoreless draw.
When it comes to Scotland vs. Serbia on the tennis court, Serbia has always drawn first blood. As we all know by now, Djokovic was the first to break through. He made a Slam final before Murray, won a Slam before Murray and leads their head-to-head 8-6 (including 2-0 in majors, with victories in the 2011 Australian Open final and the 2012 Australian Open semifinals). If ever Murray needed a measure it has been Djokovic, a guy his own age succeeding in the ways he thought he should. Djokovic's recent success has been a driver for Murray, one that leads him to their clash on Monday.
"Winning the Olympics did take a bit of the pressure off," Murray said. "I did feel a lot better after that. Maybe had less doubts about myself and my place in the game. But, yeah, winning a major is the last thing that I really want to do. It means a lot to me. You saw obviously at Wimbledon how much that meant to me. It's obviously not easy to lose another Slam final, so I hope this one is a different story."
Murray came incredibly close to defeating Djokovic at the Australian Open in January, a four-hour, 50-minute match in which the Serb prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5. It was the first glimpse at the new "Lendlized" Murray, who rallied from a break down at 2-5 in the fifth set to pull even at 5-5 before Djokovic won the final two games. Murray may have lost the match, but nascent signs of his willingness to be assertive were there.
"He is more aggressive into the court right now," Djokovic said. "Probably that's the only thing that he was missing in his game. Because he's one of the most complete players in the world right now."
That aggression has been the story for Murray in 2012 it will be put to the test against Djokovic. The two have split their four meetings this year, and the winner has always been the man who could strike first in the rally. Their matchup is akin to that old schoolyard game of Steal the Bacon, as they will poke and prod until one decides to go for it and take control of the rally. Both play first-rate defense and are counterpunchers at their core, but Djokovic's power, particularly on the forehand side, comes easier. He has spent years developing his attacking game, and his fearless "I'm a genius if it's in and a moron if it's out" hitting has effectively won him championships.
"Most of our matches were very close, and only small margins decide the winner," Djokovic said. "That's something that is expected in a way, because we have similar games."
Djokovic has his game in excellent form. He has dropped only one set all tournament, to David Ferrer in beyond-blustery conditions in the semifinals, and he dazzled with his scintillating display of defense against Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals. Murray has had a couple of shaky moments but nevertheless is into his second major final in a row, looking to win that elusive Slam at last.
"I know it's going to be very, very, very, very tough match," Murray said.
If Murray can pull it off, it will be a very, very, very very big victory.
Djokovic in four sets.