By Richard Pagliaro, Tennis.com
Grand Slam gridlock is now a two-man race. Arthur Ashe Stadium court is a crossroads as Novak Djokovic meets Andy Murray in a blockbuster U.S. Open final between players of similar skill sets and contrasting pressure points.
Murray is trying to snap a 76-year drought in becoming the first British man to win a Grand Slam singles title since Fred Perry earned the 1936 U.S. Championships on grass at nearby Forest Hills. Playing his third straight U.S. Open final, defending champion Djokovic aims to extend his Flushing Meadows reign, capture his sixth career major championship, and solidify his status as an all-time elite champion.
Career arcs collide in noisy New York, and it makes you wonder which burden will be the greater to bear: Murray's quest, after the anguish of four final-round defeats, or Djokovic playing to achieve what champions say is the toughest task in tennis—defending a Grand Slam title—and doing so for the second time this season.
"I know how tough it is to beat the top, top players in big matches," Murray said. "I have had some tough losses against him, but also had some big highs against him, as well. So obviously it will be an unbelievably tough match. He moves very well on the hard courts. He's a top, top player, one of the best players that's played...I know it's going to be a very, very, very, very tough match."
Their stylistic similarities and ability to play all-court tennis creates very, very, very, very close matches. Djokovic and Murray were born a week apart, grew into junior rivals and practice partners, and are squaring off the for the second time in a Grand Slam final. At the 2011 Australian Open, Djokovic swept a skittish Murray, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, and holds an 8-6 advantage in their head-to-head series, including a 6-5 edge in their hard-court matches.
This final is a survival of the fittest and fastest, as the second-ranked Serbian and fourth-ranked Scot both possess shrewd court sense and the ability to downsize the court. When two of the quickest, most agile athletes on the circuit are clicking in running rallies, the result can dazzle—as was the case in January when Djokovic outdueled Murray, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5 in an Australian Open semifinal thriller that saw the game's two top returners combine for 50 break points.
Because their strengths are similar—both are clean ball strikers with whiplash two-handed backhands—their matches are won by the man who masters the margins best. Both players are creative improvisers who can scramble, bend their bodies into elastic positions, and scrape back retrievals from the full stretch—all assets on the game's fastest Grand Slam surface.
"Most of our matches that we played against each other 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. We are big rivals and we have been in top of the men's game for a long time, so we know each other really well."
The challenge with forecasting finals is you can't predict how players will respond to pressure, and how quickly they can calm their nerves and find their comfort zone. Both men have survived some lapses—a moody Murray fell behind a set and 1-5 before fighting back to beat Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals; a distracted Djokovic looked like he left his intensity back in the Jersey estate he occupies during the Open while trailing David Ferrer on Saturday—and both fully realize the importance of a fast start. The winner of the first set has prevailed in 13 of their 14 meetings; Djokovic has won the first set in five of his last six hard-court victories over Murray.
If you're one of the skeptics who dismiss Murray as a crafty pusher—a counter-puncher without a kill shot—you need a reality check or at least a DVD of the aforementioned Australian Open semifinal, where Murray showed his full spectrum of shots and a hunger for the fight. If this rematch is anywhere near as physically intense as that beautiful skirmish, it could favor Murray. The boxing fan who trains in the atmospheric equivalent of a rugby scrum mugging—the sticky heat and sweltering winds of summer-time Miami—has looked physically fresher, won 20 of his last 22 matches, and had an extra day of rest after taming a tricky wind and an explosive Tomas Berdych in a four-set semifinal win on Saturday.
Then again, Djokovic has a better career record in five-setters—17-5 compared to Murray's 12-6 mark—is 4-0 in five-set matches this year (including that gripping victory in Oz) and has surrendered just one set in the tournament. Djokovic's level of tennis, unrelenting court coverage, and that dagger of a backhand down the line he delivered in beating 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro is astounding. If he can reproduce all of it, he will prevail.
Murray's chances are not to be discounted, but he must be assertive on critical points. It's very tempting to pick Murray, who should be empowered by his performance beating Djokovic and Roger Federer back-to-back in winning the Olympic gold medal. Working with coach and three-time U.S. Open champion Ivan Lendl, Murray has improved his second serve, his forehand, and has made better use of his soft hands and shrewd court sense at net. His finesse and feel for shifting paces are advantages, but the better net player must be willing to use them and move forward when opportunity arises. Murray can assert himself when he chooses, the question is, can he do it at critical stages against an outstanding defender who plays as if no ball is beyond his reach?
Murray is too good not to break through in a major final, and when you consider that he won the junior U.S. Open title, claimed his first ATP title on American soil, and has cited Flushing Meadows as his favorite Slam it would be fitting for him to do so in New York. But, Djokovic plays the score and situation with a bit more clarity, tends to be bolder on game-changing points (see his match point heroics here against Federer the past two years), and transitions from defense to offense more effectively. I picked Djokovic to win the title before the tournament began and will stick with that pick in what should be an entertaining and tight test.