Closing the Gap: Djokovic, Murray and Their Unlikely Battle for Number One

Among the 26 men to have been ranked number one since the ATP’s inception in 1973, few could put forth as complete a resume as Andy Murray: three major titles, eleven major finals, a Davis Cup trophy, and two Olympic gold medals. And yet, simply by the course of his rivalry with Novak Djokovic, he might be one of the most improbable.

You only have to look back to June, when Djokovic had beaten Murray for his maiden French Open title to see just how unlikely Murray’s ascendance has been. A 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory, it was the second straight slam final the Serb had defeated Murray in, but more importantly, gave him the distinction of holding all four major titles at once. Djokovic had proven to be literally unbeatable when it really mattered… at least until a subtle drop-off in form and a perfect storm of run-ins with the men who could take advantage had him abruptly dethroned five months later.

A quick glance at the results will tell you this is not the same Djokovic who dominated tennis for much of the past three years. Since Roland Garros, he has lost at five of the six tournaments he has played in, falling to a veritable who’s-who of the ATP’s premier gunslingers: Sam Querrey (Wimbledon third-round), Juan-Martin Del Potro (Rio Olympics first-round), Stan Wawrinka (US Open final), Roberto Bautista-Agut (Shanghai semis) and most recently, Marin Cilic (Paris quarters) – his lone title coming against Kei Nishikori in Toronto. That’s not a coincidence, where in the past Djokovic has been able to successfully blunt such power games and answer in kind, recently his own offensive game has been misfiring.

With perhaps the exception of Querrey – who on the speedy lawns of the All England Club played absolutely out-of-his-vulcan-mind in an exhibition of first-strike tennis – the result of each of those matches hinged largely on Djokovic. Against Wawrinka and Bautista Agut, he actually had a positive dominance ratio (per tennis abstract), but even against Del Potro and Cilic he didn’t lack for opportunities. His defensive skills have always allowed him to weather – if not completely neutralise – the sort of massive weapons each of those players possesses, but eventually, defence has to shift to neutral, and neutral has to shift to attack – since the French it’s become apparent he just hasn’t been able to consistently make those transitions. It’s not just an issue of missing aggressive shots either, but an inability to force his opponents into giving him more hittable balls. From the perspective of a Cilic or Wawrinka, that contentedness to maintain rallies – even as decent attacking opportunities appear – gives them the confidence they need to go for their own shots, and even someone as brilliant as Djokovic can’t fend off multiple 120kph+ thunderbolts.

In contrast, Murray hasn’t just maintained his year-on-year excellence, he’s gotten even better. Since the French, he’s gone 45-3 (not including walkovers) with seven titles under his belt, including Wimbledon and an Olympic gold medal. Counter-punching has always been a hallmark of his game, but he’s been able to mix in his own well-timed aggression to dictate points against even the biggest of sluggers. The best example of this was his own match against Del Potro in the Olympic final. Both Murray and Djokovic found themselves embroiled in constant ad-court-to-ad-court exchanges with the Argentine, but where Djokovic was looping his backhand into inside-out forehands, Murray was able to consistently push him wider and deeper with the same shot, eliciting Del Potro’s weaker backhand in return, and opening up more attacking opportunities in kind. If Del Potro did go on the attack, Murray was often able to completely blunt it and send him back to his backhand corner, or vary the pace on his shots, lull him into over-committing, and pass him once out-of-position. Even with Del Potro still in the scintillating form that had downed Djokovic, Murray’s ability to dictate – both in terms of court position and rhythm, made a vital difference.

In the end these two remain as closely matched as they’ve always been, if just with the roles reversed. That said, Djokovic fans have to prepare themselves for the reality that, as it did with Federer and Nadal, his dominance has started to take a more permanent physical and mental toll. The two 29-year-olds may have been born only a week apart, but their difference in “tennis age” is a lot wider. There’s only so long you can dominate week-in, week-out, before a player starts to wear down. It doesn’t mean he’s done by any means, it just means he’ll have to start picking his spots, in particular easing it back at Masters 1000s.

Despite being a week older, Murray hasn’t hit that wall yet, mostly because he’s been saving his legs, albeit unintentionally. In 2013 he missed the French with a back injury, which required him to have surgery that September, which in turn led him to miss the March-April hardcourt swing of 2014. Also performance wise, his occasional quarter-final-and-earlier slam exits would have saved him from playing multiple grinding matches against top opposition, and obviously it’s a lot easier to recover from the flight back home than it is going 8 hours combined with Djokovic and/or Federer and Nadal.

Of course, the question now is: what will happen as the two move to London for the World Tour Finals? There are multiple permutations, but essentially if either takes the title they take the year-end ranking with it. Right now, Murray has to be the favourite, but if it is indeed Djokovic across-the-net from him in the final, the grinding style of their matchups may give him a better chance to succeed. The throne could end having been Murray’s to borrow, or his to keep – let’s just hope their battle is indeed decided in the final, and we get a match as quality as the two players in it.

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