Andy Murray must have something special going on if he can goad model citizen Roger Federer into trash-talking, the way he did near the end of his five-set conquest of the Swiss icon in the semifinals of the Australian Open. The question is: Can he flummox Novak Djokovic in like manner?
Against Federer, Murray confirmed that his new, more aggressive game can bear up under world-class stress. The 25-year-old Scot dictated the tone and pace of that match. He forced his 31-year-old rival, the all-time singles Grand Slam champion, to fight a bitter guerilla war. It's a sign of Federer's genius that he almost won the match without ever controlling it.
Djokovic, though, is a different breed of cat. Like Murray, he built his reputation and positioned himself as a top contender for big titles through his defensive skills. Only when he hit his stride as Grand Slam champion did he give free rein to his more aggressive tendencies. Starting in 2011, he took the ability to turn defense into offense, and the capacity to bully and push opponents right out of the corner of the television screen, to new heights.
In his own semifinal, Djokovic just tore apart poor David Ferrer, one of the best and most consistent defenders in the game, in under an hour and a half. That might give Murray pause, but keep in mind that Ferrer is the ultimate foil and Murray no longer is content to counterpunch and await his opponent's errors.
Djokovic still leads 10-7 in head-to-head play with his true natural rival (Murray was born just a week earlier than Djokovic in May of 1987). But they've been more or less taking turns whupping up on each other after Djokovic won their first four pro encounters. They're 2-2 in Masters or Grand Slam-quality events since Murray launched his breakthrough summer at the London Olympic Games, where he won gold (with back-to-back wins over Djokovic and Federer).
Although Murray won their most recent Grand Slam clash, in the U.S. Open title match this past September, Djokovic is gunning for a Down Under hat trick. He laid a terrible beating on Murray in the 2011 final, allowing the Scot just nine games. Sure Murray is a different player now, but he hasn't succumbed to amnesia.
Anyone who sees either player with a clear edge in this one is blowing smoke. This match will come down to execution, so let's see how their arsenals compare:
Serve: Murray rained down 21 aces against Federer, the most he has hit in any match in Australia. He also won 63 percent of his second serves, but, in some key moments, his second serve appeared vulnerable. Djokovic's serve has been reliable but not as lethal as Murray's. In his own major test (a 12-10 in-the-fifth, fourth-round win over Stanislas Wawrinka), Djokovic hit just seven aces and won 55 percent of his second serve points. Advantage, Murray.
Return: One of Federer's shortcomings against Murray was his failure to attack Murray's serve, particularly the second ball. Djokovic will punish any poor serve by Murray. Although these two probably are the best returners in the game, Murray's sometimes unreliable second serve means advantage, Djokovic.
Forehand: One of the big keys to Murray's recent success is the transformation of his forehand into a legitimate weapon rather than a mere rally tool. But although it's always dangerous, it's not as consistently reliable as Djokovic's pile-driving forehand. I also give Djokovic an edge when it comes to changing the direction of the ball. Advantage, Djokovic.
Backhand: Again, two exceptional backhands. Both men are fearless when it comes to pulling the trigger on the must-have shot of champions, the down-the-line backhand. Although Djokovic is more skillful at working the angles, Murray seems to get better penetration with a cleaner, flatter ball. Advantage, Murray.
Volley: Neither man is a natural volleyer, but neither is afraid to come forward when the opportunity is right, either. Murray's hands are a little quicker and defter around the net, and he's more apt to score points with surprise trips to the net. Advantage, Murray.
Movement: Murray covers an enormous amount of territory and finds heroic ways to stay in points and even to turn the tables during points. But he's also gangly and relatively heavy-footed, and Djokovic is smooth and elastic. Advantage, Djokovic.
Intangibles: These men have played some grueling, bitterly contested matches -- their semifinal at this same tournament last year lasted almost five hours. Coming off a four-hour semifinal probably will hurt Murray if the match goes five long sets. Plus, Murray is well aware of how comfortable Djokovic is on these courts, even if it works to Murray's advantage that the court speed is a little faster this year.
As Murray said the other day, when asked whether having won a Grand Slam will make him better prepared for a Djokovic onslaught than he was last year: "I'll see obviously how I feel when I get on the court. I would hope so. The task isn't any easier. I'm obviously playing Novak again on this court. I mean, this has been his best court, for sure." Advantage, Djokovic.
The bottom line: Murray needs to exploit the court speed to take the game right to Djokovic. He needs to avoid protracted rallies and resist Djokovic's habit of turning Australian Open finals into contests of endurance and rallying proficiency.