With age catching up with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal injured, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray could be the last men standing at most tournaments, writes Steve Elling.
Rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray no laughing matter
They stood nose to nose, staring and glaring, straight-faced and menacing, all for the good of the camera and tournament publicity.
Rather, that was the idea.
The problem was, whenever Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray turned to face each other in a pre-tournament photo opportunity in Abu Dhabi last month, one of them would bust out laughing. Grim gave way to grins.
Comfortable adversaries since their preteen years on the junior circuit, the two 25 year olds, born seven days apart, are not only hitting their prime, but are poised to turn the grand slams into their own looping laugh track.
Still, this is about to become serious business.
Djokovic and Murray, the Nos 1 and 3, met in the final of the last grand slam event, the US Open, won by Murray. This week, at the Australian Open, Djokovic is seeking an unprecedented third consecutive title in Melbourne. As fate would have it, the friendly foes are eyeing one another from opposite sides of the draw sheet, as it darned well should be.
Indeed, nobody would blink if the two met in the final. In fact, given the transitional state of affairs at the top of men's tennis, it might be more surprising if they did not. At this event and for the next few seasons, in fact.
"For quite a while, I didn't really play him that much," Murray said. "We were seeded three and four in a lot of big events and it's not that easy to get to the finals of a grand slam. Now that I have been three or four and he has been one or two, we've played each other in more matches.
"We're obviously the same age, we played each other the first time when we were 12, so I don't want to say it like 'rivalry' because that sounds like we don't like each other, and we get on. But he will be somebody that I am sure I will play more top matches against.
"We know each other's games really well and I think that's normally when you get the best matches, because you know what to expect. Like when Roger [Federer] and Rafa [Nadal] play each other. You tend to get a feel for what they are going to do and it makes it more interesting."
Those two are the wild cards in the scenario. Last year, Federer became the oldest man to be ranked No 1, although Djokovic reclaimed the position quickly enough.
Federer, who turns 32 this season, has amassed an incomparable 17 majors and can still play at the highest levels, perhaps just not as often.
It is still unclear when fans will next see Nadal, an 11-time slam winner who has missed seven months with a lingering knee issue, its long-term impact impossible to gauge.
Murray and Djokovic remain in ascent or orbiting at an apparent apex. Murray has reached the Australian Open final in two of the past three years and Djokovic has won it three times in his last five tries. They met in the 2010 final, so we can all see where this is trending.
They first met as juniors in a French tournament in Tarbes, an event Murray has no trouble detailing – he won 6-0, 6-1. They have taken turns streaking past each other in the dozen years since, but with Murray beating Djokovic for the US title last autumn, the playing field feels as level as it has ever been.
"When we were 13 and 14, I used to win against him, and then at 15 and 16, he started winning against me," Murray said. "Then we went on the tour and he broke through first. Then I finished a little bit higher than him.
"At the time I wasn't thinking, 'Novak is ahead of me in the rankings,' and it motivated me. But it's kind of been weird, our careers, how one will start there, and the next one has to catch up."
Now that reality is shared by everybody chasing the pair.
Djokovic, who holds a 10-7 career edge over the Scotsman in sanctioned play, not only faces two weeks with Murray in his future, but 44 years of history. Ten players have won the Australian Open twice in succession, but none have succeeded in their third try. In fact, only Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl made the finals before falling short in their attempt at three in a row.
Djokovic seemed unaware that history was within his grasp when the notion was broached, then made a joke about whether it was bad luck to talk about it.
"I hope not, because you brought it up already," the Serbian star laughed. "No, I am not superstitious. I will actually be very motivated to hear that nobody has done it. I will try to make history.
"I would obviously be very flattered to be the first to do that, because the Australian Open is my most successful grand slam."
Coming off consecutive player-of-the-year awards, Djokovic reached the finals of the French Open last year with a chance of claiming a wraparound grand slam, but lost to Nadal. He has reached the finals in seven of the past nine slam events, losing in the semi-finals in the other pair. Murray has reached the semi-finals or beyond in seven of the past eight majors.
If they intersect again, be sure to block out some time – when they met at the Australian and US Opens last year, both matches took five hours to complete. Such is their level of familiarity – they have looked across the net at each other for so long, they seem to know what the other guy is thinking. "It adds something more special to the rivalry, because we have known each other that long," Djokovic said.
"That is something that is very interesting for people who are watching our match.
"For us, personally, we have a very friendly, very nice relationship on and off the court and we respect each other.
"We make each other better players. I hope we have many more of those encounters that we'll be proud of."
That thought makes everybody grin.
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