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Steve Flink: Tennis has a new premier rivalry

10/15/2012 3:00:00 PM

For a very long while, the showcase rivalry in the game has been the historic series played out between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. They have met no fewer than 28 times across their storied careers, with the Spaniard the victor on 18 of those occasions. Moreover, Nadal has halted Federer in six of their eight final round duels at the Grand Slam events. More recently, Nadal’s head-to-head series with Novak Djokovic has grown enormously in prestige. Beginning at Wimbledon in 2011 and ending at Roland Garros this year, they clashed in a men’s record four consecutive Grand Slam finals, most memorably in a stirring five hour, 53 minute, five set epic at the Australian Open in January. Nadal holds a 19-14 lead in that gripping rivalry. Meanwhile, the confrontations between Federer and Djokovic have become ever more compelling, with Federer currently ahead by 16 matches to 12. With his semifinal win over Federer in Shanghai, Murray holds a 10-8 edge in that intriguing rivalry.

But the way I see it, the sport has a brand new “most important” rivalry. All across this season, Murray and Djokovic have traded punches from the backcourt in every conceivable setting. They have collided six times in five different countries. Each man has been the victor three times. The tennis they have played against each other in most of these matches has been nothing less than first rate. There is a growing feeling among the cognoscenti that Murray and Djokovic will meet with increasing frequency on big occasions, and the outcome of their contests will be almost impossible to project.

In the latest episode of this unfolding drama, Djokovic demonstrated once more that he is the best pressure player in the game, saving five match points to oust Murray 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3 in a riveting three hour, twenty-one minute skirmish in the final of the Shanghai Rolex Masters. This was one of the finest matches of the entire 2012 campaign, an exceedingly high quality encounter played under ideal conditions on a neutral hard court, remarkable in every way.

Let’s review what happened. Here were the two best returners in tennis, and that was readily apparent from the outset of the final. Murray fell behind 0-2 in the opening set. But he got his bearings in the third game as Djokovic missed four out of five first serves. At break point, Murray prevailed in a 23 stroke exchange, cracking a penetrating inside out forehand to elicit a backhand slice mistake from Djokovic. Murray was back on serve at 1-2. He then held for 2-2 and broke again in the fifth game as Djokovic put only two of six first serves in play. Murray had collected three games in a row. He was clearly building momentum.

But not for long. The sixth game went to deuce twice. Murray had a game point for 4-2. But an obstinate Djokovic kept pounding away, and his searing returns lifted him back to 3-3. In the seventh game, Djokovic was broken at 15, connecting with only two of five first serves. Murray was ascendant again, up a break at 4-3. But Djokovic elevated his game considerably to reach 0-30 in the eighth game before Murray double faulted to fall behind 0-40. Djokovic got the break back for 4-4 at 15 as Murray netted a sliced backhand crosscourt.

In eight games, there had been no less than six service breaks. Both men were ultra-aggressive on second serve returns, particularly Murray off his stellar backhand side. Djokovic, however, seemed primed to stamp his authority at the end of the set. He held at 15 for 5-4, making four of five first serves. Murray missed three returns in a row at the end of that game. Now the U.S. Open champion was serving to stay in the set. In the critical tenth game, Murray double faulted to trail 0-30, and he was two points away from losing the set. But he forced Djokovic into a running backhand error, and then benefitted from a forehand inside-out unforced error from the Serbian. At 30-30, Murray came forward confidently to put away a high backhand volley. On the following point, he got just enough kick on his second serve to provoke a backhand return error from Djokovic. Despite missing six straight first serves, Murray held on steadfastly for 5-5.

Djokovic rolled to 40-0 in the eleventh game, but lost the next five points. From deuce, he botched one of his favorite shots—the forehand drive volley—and then punched a forehand down the line volley wide. Infuriated by blowing the 40-0 lead and losing his serve, Djokovic smashed his racket on the court as he headed for the changeover. Murray served out the set by winning a 20 stroke rally at 40-30 as Djokovic drove a forehand long. Murray had taken the 73 minute, 7-5 set narrowly against a man who has not lost a match all year after winning the first set—no mean feat.

In the second set, both men began serving with more conviction as the level of play rose to a majestic level. The most spectacular point occurred when Djokovic served at 1-1. He opened that game by winning a brilliant 28 stroke exchange as both players exploited every available inch of the court. Djokovic drew Murray in with a drop shot, but Murray retreated to play a solid high backhand volley. Djokovic eventually won that point with an unstoppable forehand down the line approach. The crowd cheered on both players unreservedly. In contrast to the first set, though, both men were holding comfortably through the first six games.

In that span, Djokovic conceded only four points in three service games and Murray matched that achievement. Murray released a pair of aces on his way to 3-3, and then made his move in the seventh game. Djokovic drifted to 15-40 as Murray coaxed a few forehand errors from the Serbian. At break point, Murray’s passing shot clipped the net cord and rushed Djokovic into an awkward backhand half volley. That set up a stinging forehand crosscourt pass from Murray that Djokovic could not handle on the low forehand volley. Murray had the break for 4-3, and swiftly held for 5-3.

Now within striking distance of a third straight crown in Shanghai—and a third head to head victory in a row over the Serbian—Murray surely recollected his U.S. Open final round triumph over Djokovic, when the Serbian rallied from two sets down to force a fifth set. Moreover, Murray had served for the match against Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2011 Italian Open, but bowed on that occasion in a final set tie-break. Djokovic has a hard earned reputation these days for his propensity to raise his game when his back is to the wall.

At 3-5 in the second set, Djokovic held on, and so it was up to Murray to serve the match out. In the tenth game, Murray moved briskly to 30-0, two points away from the title. If he could take this point, he would be at triple match point, and losing would be just about out of the question. But Djokovic dealt the highly charged British player a devastating blow. He approached the net and played a solid forehand volley down the line. Murray sliced a lob exquisitely off the backhand over the Serbian’s head, forcing Djokovic to retreat rapidly to the baseline. Murray would have been wise to follow his lob in and thus take the net away from Djokovic, but he elected to stay back.

Djokovic chased that lob down, and pulled off an astonishing “tweener”, sending his between the legs shot over the net with gusto. The rally continued with the audience gasping and exhilarated. Djokovic won the point with an audacious backhand drop shot winner down the line, smiling at the appreciative crowd with sincerity and glee. It was a moment strongly reminiscent of the blazing forehand return winner that Djokovic pulled off when he was double match point down against Federer at the 2011 U.S. Open. On that occasion, the psychological lift of pulling some magic out of his arsenal at a propitious moment propelled Djokovic to an astonishing five set triumph.

In this meeting with Murray, the timeliness of his well-rewarded gamble ignited Djokovic similarly. Although Murray managed to make it to 40-30 at 5-4 in that second set, Djokovic’s mindset had been altered decidedly. He saved the match point by releasing a sizzling backhand return that caught Murray on his heels. Murray’s response off the backhand had no depth or pace, allowing Djokovic to drill a forehand winner easily to a wide open space. Djokovic broke back obstinately for 5-5. Both players held to set up a tie-break.

That was an extraordinary and pulsating sequence, the essential heart of the contest. Djokovic surged to 3-1. But he double faulted to make it 3-2. Murray made it back to 3-3, but then Djokovic established another mini-break lead by reaching 4-3. An opportunistic Murray struck back boldly again, reaching 4-4 as Djokovic made a rare backhand down the line unforced error. Murray then blasted another trademark flat backhand return crosscourt off a second serve, drawing Djokovic into an error. Serving at 5-4, Murray was taken well off the court by a scorching forehand crosscourt from Djokovic, but he shifted back onto offense and won the point spectacularly by rushing Djokovic into a netted forehand. It was 6-4 for Murray, and he was at match point for the second time.

Yet he missed his first serve. During that rally, he sliced a backhand softly crosscourt but Djokovic went for the line on an inside out forehand, clipping it cleanly for a winner. Now serving at 5-6—but down match point for the third time—Djokovic played it with strategic soundness, serving to Murray’s forehand into the body. Murray could not get out of the way, netting the return. It was 6-6. Djokovic took the next point on serve to establish a 7-6 lead, reaching set point for the first time. But Murray erased it with a wide serve in the deuce court setting up an unanswerable forehand approach. Murray attacked again to make it 8-7 in his favor.

Djokovic was match point down for the fourth time, but met the moment brilliantly, serving deep to the backhand. Murray’s crosscourt return was short but low, yet Djokovic unhesitatingly drove his forehand inside-in for a dazzling outright winner. He then served his way to 9-8 as Murray pulled a two-hander wide. Set point to Djokovic for the second time, but Murray was serving, and the British competitor was unswerving. He took the next two points by going on the attack, eliciting two errant lobs from the Serbian. Djokovic was serving at 9-10, with Murray at match point for the fifth and final time. Djokovic missed his first serve but placed his second serve well. During that rally, Murray laced an inside-out forehand with terrific pace, but Djokovic confounded his opponent by going down the line off the backhand to coax a forehand error from an understandably off guard Murray. Back to 10-10 was Djokovic, and a service winner down the T gave Djokovic another set point at 11-10.

Murray remained unrelenting. He reached 11-11 with a thundering crosscourt backhand that was unmanageable for Djokovic. But on the following point, Murray made his most expensive unforced error of the entire match. Sticking with what had been a winning formula, Murray sent a first serve wide in the deuce court, opening up the court for an inside-out forehand. He had made that shot time automatically over and over again, but at this crucial moment he missed. Djokovic took a 12-11 lead, and he sealed the tie-break in style, serving wide to the backhand to set up a forehand drive volley winner behind Murray. Djokovic took the tie-break, 13-11, saving four of the five match points in that sequence, revealing again that he thrives in the tightest corners of the toughest matches.

Murray could have become deflated in the early stages of the final set, but that was not the case. Down break point at 2-2, he released a remarkably good second serve kicker to draw a backhand return error from Djokovic, and soon Murray held on for 3-2. But Djokovic had more emotional and physical energy in reserve. The Serbian held at 15 for 3-3, and then broke Murray at 15 for 4-3, opening and closing that game with deep and commandingly struck forehand returns provoking mistakes from Murray.

Yet Murray fought on gamely. With Djokovic serving at 4-3, Murray made it to deuce before Djokovic closed out that game with a forehand drive volley winner and an ace out wide. Murray served to stay in the match at 3-5 in that final set and saved two match points against him with an un-returnable serve and an inside out forehand winner. But Djokovic quickly collected the last two points to win in three hours and 21 minutes, coming away deservedly yet fortunately with a 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3 triumph.

Djokovic is on a terrific run, having won two tournaments in a row and ten consecutive matches. He has now captured five tournaments in 2012, and has opened up a substantial lead over Federer in the race for No. 1 in the world. Djokovic has collected 11,410 points, 2155 more than the Swiss, who stands at 9255. Even if Federer celebrates another dominant stretch indoors at the end of this season, Djokovic is well positioned to finish the season stationed on top of the world.

Meanwhile, the feeling grows that over the next couple of years, the Murray-Djokovic rivalry will flourish. What makes it so compelling is that Murray has taken his game and his talent to another level and Djokovic is admirably standing his ground. Shot for shot, they are almost indistinguishable. Murray’s forehand has improved immeasurably across 2012, and is nearly as good if less consistent than Djokovic’s. Murray is slightly better at flattening out his forehand crosscourt, while Djokovic has the slim edge going inside-out off that side. They have the two best two-handed backhands in tennis; both are rock solid in that department. They also are the two greatest returners in the game. There will be awfully little separating these two players when both are at peak efficiency against each other over the next few years. Djokovic leads their career series 9-7, but their split of six matches in 2012 has been no accident.

Both players were in accord that their Shanghai extravaganza could have gone either way. That was also the case at the Australian Open at the start of this year, when Murray had three break points at 5-5 in the fifth set before Djokovic prevailed. At the U.S. Open, Djokovic nearly took the match away from Murray despite being two sets down. In Shanghai, Djokovic was largely more composed than Murray. Murray berated himself far too frequently during the arduous battle. But the fact remains that Murray was somewhat unlucky to lose in Shanghai. The view here is that he will fare as well next year against the Serbian as he did in 2012, perhaps even better.

I expect to see Murray and Djokovic meet at least twice next year at Grand Slam events in the semifinals or the final. I remain optimistic that we haven’t witnessed the last phenomenal showdown between Nadal and Federer, or, for that matter, Djokovic and Nadal. Nadal might be hard pressed to rediscover his prime time days when he returns to tennis, although I fervently hope he can. Federer remains a great champion, but, inescapably, he is 31. The view here is that Andy Murray versus Novak Djokovic has now become the rivalry that matters most in tennis, and that could be the case for some time to come.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.