As Novak Djokovic paraded his precision against Roger Federer on Thursday, in the stands a great athlete gasped. V.V.S. Laxman, the former Indian cricketing great, whose legendary brushwork with a cricket bat was Federer-esque (or since he came earlier we might say Federer was Laxman-esque), said: "I never felt like that for a long time. So excited, like a kid."
Laxman had never watched either man live before and even if he leans towards the Swiss he was astonished by the Serb. "You could see," said one athlete recognising immediately another's greatness, "that Novak had an excellent game plan and was able to execute it to perfection. He's not as classy as Federer, yet you can make out he's extremely hard-working. He knows what is supposed to be done and his preparation must be very good."
Further away in the stands, another fellow who knows a little more about tennis, Rod Laver, was equally stupefied. Said the man whose 11 Grand Slam singles titles Djokovic will try and equal today: "It was quite incredible the speed (Novak) was getting around the court and able to hit great shots down the line, just an inch inside the line."
Presumably, the only person who would rather not hear these stories is Andy Murray. It's hard enough playing Djokovic the man, but now he is almost becoming a mythical figure. If it wasn't for the Serb's son calling him "mama" we would think his entire life is perfect.
For those convinced by statistics, this final is already over for the numbers are lopsided. The Serb leads the Scot 21-9 overall in head-to-head meetings, 18-7 on hard courts, 6-2 in slams, 4-0 at this Open and has won 10 of their last 11 matches. One last thing: at this Open, Djokovic has won every one of his five finals and Murray has lost every one of his four championship matches. Perhaps the trophy inscriber can now get to work.
But, of course, this is sport, absent of guarantee and athletes wake up every morning cling-filmed in hope. They only win eventually because they haven't accepted defeat. As Murray said: "It's one tennis match. Doesn't matter what happened in the past really. It's about what happens on Sunday." At Rod Laver Arena in 2014, Stan Wawrinka defeated Djokovic, whom he had lost to 14 straight times and then Rafael Nadal, who had outplayed him on 12 consecutive occasions.
Still Wawrinka, built like a mini-nuclear reactor, owns the raw power to slap and swipe anyone off a court; Murray, in comparison, comes from the same grinding, spinning sect as Djokovic. But if the Scot is a known warrior of that tribe, the Serb is the head chief.
Yesterday an unshaven, relaxed Djokovic said: "I am expecting a battle with Andy, as it always is. Very physically demanding match. Lots of rallies." This was classic understatement. Last year in the final here they exchanged sweaty pleasantries for 3hr 39 min and it was only a light workout. At the 2012 Australian Open they hung around for 4hr 50min and at the US Open final that same year they pushed it to 4hr 54min. Kindly cancel all other appointments today.
Murray, it is being said, has been serving strongly but Djokovic is the head of tennis' returning department. Indeed, trying to find a weakness in Djokovic's game is akin to discovering a flaw in Michelangelo's David. Perhaps in this battle between these playing cousins - "it's two games that are very much alike," said Djokovic - the key lies in consistency.
Quite simply, a rival doesn't just have to do most things a little better than Djokovic. More importantly he has to do it longer - which is a bit difficult against a Serb who can hit lines even when he's gone five hours and looks like he needs a drip and a stretcher. In last year's final, the Scot had his chances yet he lapsed and the unmerciful Serb galloped away with the final set 6-0.
Nevertheless this is Murray's only route to success and as he said: "The most important thing for me is to sustain my level for long enough, not just for one set here or there, a few games here or there. I need to do it, you know, for a very long period if I want to get the win. That's my challenge on Sunday."
Most of the evidence points to a Serbian win, but here's a little hope for the Scot. In slam finals, Djokovic leads only 3-2, which means Murray has done the improbable twice. It might also be said despite performances which suggest he has heavenly powers, the Serb is in fact human. He can fail. It doesn't seem like much to hold on to, but right now for Murray it will have to do.
MEN'S SINGLES FINAL
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