Andy Murray will bid to end a tormenting run of three losing Australian Open finals as world number one Novak Djokovic eyes a fifth triumph in Sunday’s decider in Melbourne.
The year’s first major has been a heartbreak Grand Slam for the Scot, but he has given himself another chance to finally break through and add to his Wimbledon and US Open crowns.
To do that the British sixth seed must halt Djokovic’s formidable record on the Melbourne hardcourts where he reigns supreme, is four-from-four in finals and into his fifth title decider in eight years.
Djokovic has beaten Murray in two of his three Australian losses in 2011 and 2013, but the feisty Scot has mastered the Serb in his two major triumphs at the 2012 US Open and 2013 Wimbledon.
History also beckons for Murray, who became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years two years ago. He could also become the first Briton since Fred Perry in 1934 to lift the Australian trophy.
Djokovic, chasing his eighth Grand Slam triumph, is the favourite, but Murray carries sentimental support given his travails in Melbourne. The question is whether he is a better player for those experiences.
“I know it’s going to be extremely difficult to win the match tomorrow. I know if I want to win, it will probably be very tough and challenging physically,” Murray said Saturday.
“So I need to prepare myself mentally for that. But he has a fantastic record here. He obviously loves the court and the conditions. It would be a big upset if I manage to win tomorrow.”
Murray, under the coaching of two-time French major champion Amelie Mauresmo, looked impressive in turning over Tomas Berdych in Thursday’s semi-final, while Djokovic laboured over five sets to put away defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
While delighted to have again reached Sunday’s final, Djokovic admitted “the level of performance was not where I wanted it to be”.
For his part, Murray was pleased with the state of his game and proud to be in a fourth Melbourne final in an era dominated by Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Wawrinka had the weapons to leave Djokovic gasping at times running around the court during their semi, which must have encouraged Murray, who while regarded as a great defensive players, is looking to add more variety to his game.
“He’s been playing some great tennis these couple weeks,” Djokovic said of Murray. “From my side it’s going to be necessary to play my best match of the tournament if I want to win.
“There’s no clear favourite. But the record I have in finals against him in Australia can serve maybe as a slight mental edge. But not much.
“I’m sure he’s going to be very motivated to win his first title here. I’m going to give my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Up until Friday’s semi-final, Djokovic had lost just one of his 74 service games in the tournament. Against Wawrinka his serve was broken five times and that will give Murray confidence.
Murray showed he is capable of making tactical tweaks during his matches to counter his opponents and is expecting he may have to do the same against Djokovic.
“I made some big adjustments in the Berdych match from how things were going at the start,” he said.
Djokovic and Murray have been playing each other since they were young juniors and both teams socialise with each other and get on well.
“We have a very good relationship, my team and his team, so we always joke around.”
As the world’s top two prepare to face off in the Australian Open final, we’re reminded of the paradox that is the so-called “rivalry” between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
Can a rivalry that is so lopsided still be branded one? The pair have played each other 18 times. Williams has won 16 of them.
What started off as a promising tug of war 11 years ago, when Sharapova beat Williams twice in 2004 in the Wimbledon final and the season-ending championships final has evolved into a one-woman-show starring the American diva.
People never lost interest in the Serena-Maria showdown, but they also stopped looking forward to it. The narrative surrounding their matches went from, ‘who is going to win?’ to ‘how easily is Serena going to win?’.
Yet we still find ourselves intrigued by the prospect of their final today. The result on court may be predictable but in reality, their rivalry was never just about tennis.
When it comes to Williams and Sharapova, it is also about status, endorsements, personal relationships and a lot more.
Williams may be the more decorated tennis player in terms of trophies but Sharapova is the higher earner.
The Russian attracts more endorsement deals than any other female athlete on the planet and is a highly-successful entrepreneur.
For every cool Beats advert Williams features in, Sharapova sells a bunch of her Sugarpova candy, designs a new line for Nike, gets a new Porsche to drive around town and fronts a magazine cover or two.
The fact that the pair never really got along has always added spice to the mix.
A year and a half ago, they were engaged in a war of words when an article came out that quoted Williams supposedly bashing Sharapova for dating Grigor Dimitrov, which the American referred to as the “man with a black heart”.
Williams and Dimitrov were rumoured to be in a relationship the year before.
Sharapova responded by pointing out that Williams was going out with “a married man with kids”, referring to the world No1’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou.
It’s true that all this seems like ancient history right now, but it also gave us an insight into the kind of animosity the two ladies share.
Each one is a superstar in her own right but which one can outshine the other? That’s in the heart of the Serena-Maria rivalry. Going back to the tennis, the question making the rounds here in Melbourne is: Is there anything Sharapova can do to beat Williams?
In truth, Williams serves better, moves slightly better, sports a better backhand and has more variety on her forehand. The only thing Sharapova does not lack in comparison to the 33-year-old is her ability to fight.
Verdict: Williams must have an awful day and Sharapova must have a phenomenal one if the world No2 is to finally pull off the upset. The top seed has been struggling with the flu all week, and appeared sick during her practice yesterday, but that could probably mean that she will try to keep today’s win short and sweet.
While many are craving a Sharapova win to jolt some life into this rivalry, it’s tough to not expect a Williams straight sets victory.
There are probably few things scarier in tennis than facing a calm and relaxed Serena Williams.
The world No1 claims she decided in the middle of last year that she no longer had to win, but that the goal was to relax and enjoy her time on court.
The new approach clearly worked. After failing to pass the fourth round in the first three majors of 2014, Williams captured the US Open to register her 18th grand slam title win before triumphing at the WTA Finals in Singapore.
At 33, Williams became the oldest women’s finalist in Melbourne in the Open Era when she beat Madison Keys in the last four on Thursday.
She is now looking to pull off the US Open-Australian Open back-to-back double for the third time in her career only Steffi Graf has managed to achieve that feat three times.
Williams has never lost a final at Melbourne Park and is gunning for a record-extending sixth Australian Open crown when she takes on the second-seeded Maria Sharapova in the final today. But Williams has not won a title here in five years and she admits her expectations were low coming into the tournament.
“It’s been so long since I’ve even been in a final here. I was kind of like ‘oh, let me just try’,” said the No1 seed.
“My theory now is to relax and play the match as best as I can. When I step on the court and hear the announcer, I don’t have to win anymore. I can just relax and have fun.
“It started last year because I was so hyped on getting to 18 and I lost every grand slam early. I didn’t make it to the quarter-finals. Then after Wimbledon I decided to just not… not necessarily not care, but relax. And I think it’s been working.”
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) January 24, 2015
This is hardly good news for Sharapova, who hasn’t beaten Williams in over a decade a stretch that includes 15 consecutive losses to the American. Garbine Muguruza, a young Spaniard who beat Williams last year at the French Open, has her views on why Sharapova has such a horrid record against the world No1.
“I think the way she plays is not the way to beat Serena,” said Muguruza earlier this week. “I think Serena has the game to beat Maria. Obviously it has to be mental. When you are losing to her 10 years, there is something in your head blocking you during the match. Maybe she has to improve the way she plays.”
Williams agrees. She is 16-2 against Sharapova over her career and believes her game is perfectly suited to face the Russian.
“I take a lot of pride in it (my record against Sharapova). I think my game matches up well against her. I love playing her,” said Williams, who is on a 10-match winning streak in tournament finals.
Sharapova is trying to focus on the positives as approaches another daunting clash with her nemesis.
The 27-year-old will be playing her fourth Australian Open final and has been flying this fortnight since she saved two match points to beat Alexandra Panova in the second round.
“I felt that I’ve had really good matches and a good record here in Australia, even since the junior days. I’ve hopefully set myself up for another good one,” said Sharapova.
“My confidence should be pretty high going into a final of a grand slam no matter who I’m facing. It doesn’t matter. I got there for a reason. I belong in that spot. I will do everything I can to get the title.”