x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Wimbledon: Djokovic and Murray go to extreme lengths to be the best

Early ending not likely in men's final when top two seeds meet in what could be another epic match, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Sunday's Wimbledon men's final will be the fourth time Novak Djokovic, right, and Andy Murray have met in a grand slam final. Paul Crock / AFP
Sunday's Wimbledon men's final will be the fourth time Novak Djokovic, right, and Andy Murray have met in a grand slam final. Paul Crock / AFP

Perhaps the most surreal thing about the most surreal Wimbledon ever is that the top two seeds will meet each other in the men's final. Normally that is at it should be, but taking the last two weeks into account, that really is not as it should be.

At various points over the last few days it might not have been. Over two matches, either the impeccably coiffured Fernando Verdasco or the explosive and deceptively versatile Jerzy Janowicz could conceivably have knocked Andy Murray out.

In Friday's first semi-final meanwhile Juan Martín del Potro took Novak Djokovic through a gruelingly insane theatre of endurance, skill and will. The problem for Del Potro was that Djokovic actually seems to thrive in these places; no grand slam is complete these days if Djokovic has not scripted a Greek epic of a five-setter somewhere along the way.

So now, Djokovic-Murray. Who will fall? That has to be the overriding question because the foremost quality of these two that outweighs all else is that neither does fall.

Both have great games in the modern sense. They are outstanding returners. They have improved their serves to be unrecognisable to what they were, as well as become assured safety clauses to fall back on under duress.

No better proof of this exists than in Murray's serving at key moments of his semi-final.

Both possess greater imagination in finding angles, as well as nuance in employing their physical strength in shot-making than they are credited with. That gets overlooked, often with justification, by dint of both being essentially exceptional defensive champions. But ultimately that is what defines them, above every other trait, that they will keep taking each rally that one shot further until the opponent must fall.

And so when they come across each other, where, when and how will any rally end, let alone a game, set or match? Already they have threatened the unofficial records for the longest rallies in a grand slam. Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas played out an 86-shot rally at the 1978 French Open final but that seems now so ponderous and polite, and full of moments where a modern player would have just wound up and killed a winner, that it almost should not count.

This pair have already sparred at the record with a 54-shot rally in the first set of the US Open final last year (Murray blinked first, putting a standard forehand wide). There was a better, shorter rally in their Australian Open semi-final in 2011, 39 shots long and ending with Murray again on the losing end.

They may not near those heights on grass, though you would not put it past them such are their powers of retrieval, but at some point, perhaps on clay or on a hard court, they will challenge that Borg-Vilas duel again. In any event, the final will not end in a hurry.

Djokovic's experience and pedigree in grand slam finals must make him the likelier winner. It can be easy, particularly during Wimbledon, to be sucked into the tornado of hype and support surrounding Murray.

Inside that storm it is forgotten that he has won just one major so far and has lost five other finals, including his most recent, the Australian Open in January, to Djokovic.

There has always been an unseemly eagerness in the UK to shove him into the trio of players who have lit up the last decade of men's tennis.

He is not completely out of place in the company of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic himself.

He has the scars from some immense battles therein to show for it. But he is not yet a paid-up member because they deal ultimately in the currency of majors.

Each of the three are in the small elite of 14 men who have won at least five majors in the Open era; Murray right now is part of the invisible tennis masses of one-major winners.

He is steelier with Ivan Lendl around as his coach there is no doubt but is still prone to a sudden, random wobble, temperamentally as well as physically.

It is not much and less than it used to be, but it is enough. And it will look more so against someone like Djokovic who has transformed himself precisely by ironing out those moments. He now brings to each match, and particularly at the tight end of matches, the fierce focus of Nadal, so that if he is to be beaten, he will be only by someone playing their absolute best. Murray, by contrast, might beat himself for you.

In that context then, a second grand slam here, in front of a home crowd, could be the true spark for Murray to begin his ascent to a place peopled by only the chosen few, including his opponent today.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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