x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Murray and Djokovic to set aside friendship for one day

The Scot and the Serb will not let their long history get in the way as they face their biggest match when they play in the men's final at the Australian Open.

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were friends on the junior circuit.
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were friends on the junior circuit.

It is no secret on the tennis circuit that Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic go back a long way and are firm friends. But that will all be put to the side today when they meet in the final of the Australian Open.

The two men who have come to be considered as the best of the rest - that is, after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - will contest their first match in a grand slam, with the added edge that one of them will walk away with the title.

It may seem like it's been a long time coming for Djokovic and Murray, who in practice sessions and pick-up football games have this year rekindled a friendship first struck up when they were gangly pre-teens growing up on the tour.

That is due in part to the dominance of Federer and Nadal, who between them have won 21 of the past 23 majors.

As consistently high ranked players - Djokovic is No 3 and Murray No 5 - they invariably start on opposite sides of the draw at majors, and that means they are almost certain to bump into the No 1 or the No 2 before they meet each other. Not this time.

Djokovic beat the defending champion Federer in the semifinals and an injured Nadal was ousted in the quarter-finals by David Ferrer on the other side of the draw, leaving the door open to Murray.

Today's showdown will be the first time neither Federer nor Nadal have featured in a Grand Slam final since the Australian Open in 2008, when Djokovic defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to triumph.

For Djokovic, it is not before time. "They have been so dominant, such a strong two tennis players mentally, it's just been fantastic to watch them dominate the tennis on one hand," the Serbian said yesterday.

"On the other hand, it was frustrating because you don't have the opportunity of maybe winning more grand slams.

"But over the years playing against them, you kind of get to know them better and start believing in yourself more that you can win. I think right now there are a couple players that are actually believing they can win against Rafa and Roger."

With one grand slam trophy already on Djokovic's shelf, the stakes today are higher for his friend.

Murray, who jokes that he is considered British when he wins and Scottish when he loses, is being watched by a United Kingdom that has been waiting almost 75 years for a new men's singles champion. Today may be his best chance.

Djokovic and Murray, both 23, have played seven times on the men's tour. The Serbian won the first four, but Murray has won the last three, all on hard courts.

The two men, born within a week of each other in May 1987, first met in the juniors when aged 11 or 12, when Murray won in straight sets. They played a few times more, and got on well, even teaming up for doubles, when Djokovic's basic English skills and Murray's thick Scottish brogue made communication difficult.

"Back then, we were speaking kind of more with the signs, you know, hands and legs and stuff," Djokovic said.

They took different paths through Europe to the professional tour, Murray training in Spain while Djokovic went to Italy and Germany. They met for the first time in the men's tour in 2006.

Since then, Djokovic has won 18 career titles; Murray 16. Djokovic has the Australian Open trophy and was runner-up at the US Open in 2007 and last year. Murray's best Grand Slam results were runner up at the US Open in 2008 and the Australian Open last year.

"It's been a great, well, childhood, if you can say, that we had together," Djokovic said."So it's been a nice story, you know, about both of us. And to be able to meet him in a grand slam final, it makes it even more special."

The two practiced together in Perth ahead of the Australian Open, and kicked the football around - "he won, unfortunately," Djokovic said.

Djokovic recalls Murray as a kid with big hair who was under media pressure even then as Britain's best hope to win a major for the first time since Fred Perry way back in 1936.

The Serb has developed an off-court persona as a jokester, with comic impersonations of other players and a relaxed demeanour.

When an ATP official started a news conference yesterday by mistakenly announcing "questions for Andy," Djokovic made a joke out of it, pretending to storm out before re-taking his seat and saying he didn't know how he could work under such circumstances.

Murray appears more stern, or at least serious. His reputation is for rebuking himself on court and a cautious demeanour before the assembled media.

Asked to recall his early memories of his rival, Murray said Djokovic developed a lot faster as player, but says he's caught up now.

As kids, they shared big dreams.

"I don't think we were planning to meet each other, but we were dreaming of being in a grand slam final," Djokovic said. "You could already feel at that stage when we were 12, 13, 14, that we both have a talent and we both have great motivation and mentality to succeed."

But he adds: "We have to forget about all that when we step on the court," he said. "It's all business."

Murray v Djokovic, 12.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 2



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