French Open final: Djokovic on cusp of greatness vs. Murray
PARIS (AP) When Roger Federer won a record 15th Grand Slam title - a number he has since pushed to 17 - at Wimbledon in 2009 it seemed to put to bed tennis' enduring argument about who is the greatest man to have played the game.
Then Rafael Nadal reawakened it.
By beating Federer in his prime at Wimbledon in 2008, winning the 2010 U.S. Open for titles at all four major tournaments and with a record nine French Open wins in his overall haul of 14 Grand Slam trophies, Nadal left-armed his way into the conversation.
With victory on Sunday in the French Open final against Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic would become part of that debate, too. Not simply because it would give him the complete collection of titles at all four majors without which no player can pretend to have been among the very best, but because he will achieve a rare feat that eluded both Federer and Nadal: winning four consecutively.
Extending that domination and consistency to the clay of the Court Philippe Chatrier, where Djokovic has thrice been beaten in the final, would not only give him a 12th major title but suggest that the once-flaky player who wrestled with ailments both real and imaginary earlier in his career has become so untouchable that even Federer's mark of 17 may not be invulnerable.
Any argument that Djokovic would be an ersatz French champion because he hasn't faced either Nadal, who withdrew with a left-wrist injury, or Federer, who stayed home with an aching back, becomes totally spurious when one considers the solid-gold quality of the opponent who will be yelling, cursing and beating himself up on the other side of the net.
Murray, who will be Britain's first French Open champion since Fred Perry in 1935 if he beats Djokovic for a third time in a Grand Slam final, sometimes gives the impression that willpower, more than his play, is the backbone of his game.
But the Scot, so irascible on court, so seemingly normal off it, has the full armory of strokes and the tennis brain needed to break down Djokovic's defenses. He shot-by-shot dismantled, rather than simply beat, Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals, not letting last year's champion find his bearings in a 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 performance that seven-time major winner Mats Wilander described as ''the greatest tactical masterpiece I've ever seen at Roland Garros.''
Murray has spent far longer on court - 17 hours and 50 minutes - than Djokovic (12 hours, 54 minutes) at this rain-soaked French Open, in part because of his 5-set struggles in the first and second rounds. Although as fit as a butcher's dog, that extra effort could weigh on Murray if the final becomes another five-set marathon like their Roland Garros semifinal last year, won 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 5-7, 6-1 by the equally fit Serb.
Mentally, neither player has a clear edge: Murray benefits from the knowledge that he won their last meeting on clay, 6-3, 6-3 in the final in Rome last month; No. 1 Djokovic can draw on the inspiration of having beaten his understudy in the rankings in the Australian Open final in 2016, 2015, 2013 and 2011. Murray won their other two Grand Slam championship matches: at Wimbledon in 2013 and, in another five-setter, at the 2012 U.S. Open.
In the absence of ''King of Clay'' Nadal, Djokovic has made himself at home at Roland Garros, celebrating victories with ball kids, doing crowd-pleasing interviews in French and looking like he owns the place. He has dropped just one set in six matches to the final. But Murray - an opponent he first met when the 29-year-olds were still boys - offers the potential of a far sterner test.
''He's one of the most dedicated tennis players on the tour. He always seeks to improve his game and get better, which I do, too,'' Djokovic said. ''Our rivalry has evolved over the years. I don't think that there is any particular advantage to my side. I think mentally when we step on the court, sure, maybe to some extent, some small percentage, but he's playing in great form.''
Ultimately, any argument about greatest players may never get a conclusive answer. How, after all, can the wooden-racket era of Rod Laver - the last man to win the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in a row, in 1969 - be fairly compared to the furious game played now?
Murray, as good as he is, isn't close to knocking on the door of tennis' pantheon of true legends.
Not so Djokovic.
He stands on the cusp of greatness. Win Sunday, and that will be beyond doubt.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester