It took a year for the ages by Novak Djokovic and then a breakdown of Rafael Nadal's knees to wean sports fans off the rivalry between Nadal and all-time Grand Slam singles champ Roger Federer. With Nadal now sidelined and Federer still lethal but pushing 32 years of age, we might be ready for the Next Big Thing in tennis rivalries: Andy Murray versus Novak Djokovic.
Goodness knows we've had enough dress rehearsals, at least one of which was nothing short of disastrous for Murray. That one took place at the tournament where they might next meet, the upcoming Australian Open.
Djokovic mauled Murray in that 2011 final, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. Although we all saw what Djokovic went on to do that year (three Grand Slam titles and a 70-6 record), in the immediate aftermath it looked like nothing so much as a horrific whipping. And it sent Murray into a massive tailspin from which he didn't really recover until well into the clay-court season.
A lot has happened since then to wipe away the unpleasant aftertaste of that beatdown in Melbourne. The men met again in the semifinals of the Australian Open last year, and the result was far more competitive -- an exhausting, tense 7-5 in-the-fifth win for Djokovic. And then -- of course -- Murray made his big breakthrough as a Grand Slam champion at Djokovic's expense in the U.S. Open final last September.
This rivalry has matured. Now if only Federer would be gracious enough to get out of the way and let the two men have at each other, we could enjoy a rivalry just as, if not more, compelling than the two previous ones: Federer versus Nadal and Djokovic versus Nadal. Here's why:
Unlike Federer and Nadal, Murray and Djokovic are true contemporaries. They also feel a special affinity for each other, based on shared experience and age. They were born seven days apart in May 1987 (it was a heckuva week for tennis) and became friends when they met at a 12-and-under tournament in the south of France. Each of them had to wait patiently for his time to come because of the roadblocks erected in succession and ultimately jointly by Federer and Nadal.
The head-to-head between Murray and Djokovic is 10-7 in favor of Djokovic, which is much closer than Nadal's 18-10 edge on Federer. Djokovic won the first four times the men met, but since then, only Murray has won as many as three in a row, and that just one time -- immediately after absorbing those first four losses to Djokovic (the record is 6-4 to Djokovic if you toss out those first seven meetings).
Granted, Nadal and Djokovic had a good little rivalry going there, and the H2H is pretty close (19-14 in favor of Nadal). But it's also been a seesaw affair with big swings, like Djokovic's seven straight wins beginning in early 2011. Before Djokovic's magnificent 2011, Nadal dominated the rivalry, 16-7.
Stylistically, Federer versus Nadal is hard to beat. But Murray versus Djokovic is more intriguing than Djokovic versus Nadal, simply because Murray brings a measure of improvisation and creativity that the other two lack. With Murray, you match not just spectacular bombs and gets, but wits. And at no sacrifice of the stamina and punching ability that have become prerequisites to Grand Slam success.
Reflecting on the state of the rivalry last fall, Murray told newsmen: "Our matches at Dubai and Miami were not that close, but all of the other ones could have gone either way, including the one at the Olympics (Murray won that semifinal). At the U.S. Open and the Australian Open they were so close. I wouldn't say either one of us has had especially the upper hand this year. They have been incredibly physical matches; very, very tough."
You can expect more of the same now that Murray is a legitimate member of the big four -- should one or the other find a workaround when it comes to that fella Federer.