Tennis is so much more matchups-based than we tend to believe. Amanda Coetzer cracked the Steffi Graf code when nobody else could. Pete Sampras owned Jim Courier. And in the last two years, the top three men's players have matched up completely differently with each other.
Rafael Nadal has beaten Roger Federer in five of seven matches (and 18 of 27 overall), Novak Djokovic has beaten Nadal in six of eight ... and Djokovic and Federer have split the last 10. This is, of course, bad news for Federer, who, at No. 3, will more often than not have to get by Nadal just to get a chance at Djokovic, but it makes for interesting subplots. And it probably means bad things for Andy Murray, who has dropped five of seven sets to Djokovic in the last two years.
That's not to say it's been a cakewalk for Djokovic. His win over Murray in last year's Aussie finals included some incredible rallies (like the one at the bottom of the post), and their match in Rome was dubbed by some to be the best match of 2011. Both players are capable of impenetrable, grueling defense, and the rallies can last forever. Djokovic has just been slightly better recently, though this is their first meeting since Murray hired Ival Lendl as his coach.
Match No. 1: Madrid 2006 Round of 16: Djokovic 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 (Hard)
Match No. 2: Indian Wells 2007 Semis: Djokovic 6-2, 6-3 (Hard)
Match No. 3: Miami 2007 Semis: Djokovic 6-1, 6-0 (Hard)
Match No. 4: Monaco 2008 Round of 16: Djokovic 6-0, 6-4 (Clay)
Match No. 5: Toronto 2008 Quarters: Murray 6-3, 7-6 (Hard)
Match No. 6: Cincinnati 2008 Finals: Murray 7-6, 7-6 (Hard)
Match No. 7: Miami 2009 Finals: Murray 6-2, 7-5 (Hard)
Match No. 8: Aussie Open 2011 Finals: Djokovic 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 (Hard)
Match No. 9: Rome 2011 Semis: Djokovic 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (Clay)
Match No. 10: Cincinnati 2011 Finals: Murray 6-4, 3-0--RET (Hard)
Murray's hire of Llendl was a stroke of genius, really. The reason Murray is still No. 4 -- far ahead of No. 5, far behind Nos. 1-3 -- seems to be mental. He has all the physical talent you could hope for, but for key stretches, he manages to check out. The droughts don't tend to last very long, but against Djokovic, Nadal and Federer (Murray's career record against them in slams: 2-9), you almost cannot have any weakness whatsoever. The slightest crack is all the Big Three need. Lendl, meanwhile, was an incredibly cold, mentally strong player and/or villain character in the 1980s. He owned emotional players like Andre Agassi (career record: 6-2) and Jimmy Connors (22-13), and with his vicious, consistent baseline game, he won two Australian Open titles, three French Opens, and three U.S. Opens. If he can improve Murray's mental game a bit, then the Big Three could pretty quickly become the Big Four.
Until we see results in this regard, however, we have to assume Djokovic, his occasional doubles partner, has the edge. Murray has already become infinitely more consistent -- this is his fifth consecutive slam semifinal after he made just three in his first 20 slams -- but this is typically where the road ends. Still, it is difficult to ignore just how good Murray has looked Down Under, even if against weak competition (he has played only one seeded opponent, No. 24 Kei Nishikori). Djokovic looked as untouchable as ever in the first week, but he dropped a set to local hero Lleyton Hewitt, and he appeared to tweak a hamstring against David Ferrer in his (straight-sets) victory in the quarterfinals. Djokovic says he's fine (I'm sure the injury was nothing a day in the hyperbaric chamber couldn't fix), but it does perhaps open the door for Murray ever so slightly.
From the "styles make fights" perspective, Djokovic-Murray matches are typically as or more aesthetically pleasing than Djokovic-Nadal (though Nola-Rafa does tend to involve the human drama of Nadal openly questioning his existence when Djokovic chases down all of his winners). It will be intense, long and entertaining. And despite the 3:30 AM ET start time, it should still be going for a while when you get up in the morning.
Australian Open 2011