The British No1 and his Serbian contemporary show that a year is a long time
in tennis, writes Richard Jago (The Guardian):
Had Andy Murray wanted to see those little improvements which he believes
will carry him into the very small group contending for grand slam titles,
he had no need to look further than his old friend Novak Djokovic in
Melbourne on Sunday.
The upward paths of the two 20-year-olds had been remarkably parallel and
they began 2007 with the Serb ranked 16 in the world and Murray 17. Since
then, though, Djokovic has not only followed his US Open final appearance
with a first grand slam title in Australia but has become tactically more
aggressive and mentally stronger.
Murray, too, might have been challenging for big titles but for the wrist
injury which ruined five months of last year but, while he has recovered
well from this setback, he has yet to generate consistently either the
forcefulness of Djokovic or the capacity to impose it inside and further up
the court. Their divergent paths were reflected in yesterday's updated
rankings, when Murray slipped from ninth to 12th and Djokovic held firm at
3rd, behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic gave warning of his year ahead after beating Murray both in Indian
Wells and at Miami 10 months ago. "You know, I'm trying to get to the net as
much as I can," he said then. "I'm still not going there so often but I'm
really trying to use every opportunity. My style, you know, is aggressive
and I'm going to work more on the volleys and on the serves to improve and
make my game perfect."
He has certainly used his flexible 6ft 3in frame to work hard on his serve,
which is heavier, on his ground strokes, which are more hustling, and on his
net game, with which he is more comfortable. These are ingredients similar
to those that Murray has been working on but the Scot's ability to introduce
them regularly into matches has fallen behind that of Djokovic.
Those two American defeats were salutary, according to Andrew Castle, the
former British No1 turned TV presenter. "Djokovic hits the ball harder and
heavier, no question," Castle said yesterday. "Which is why last year in
Indian Wells and Miami he delivered a lesson both times which must have been
quite a shock for Andy. And Andy has responded. It put him into the best 10
in the world. I still see his game as in great shape."
Castle adds: "What strikes me about Djokovic is that he has an aggressive
dimension Andy would like to have - taking a shorter ball and whacking it.
But there's no reason why Andy can't do it."
Murray's game tends to display cagier qualities. His creative ability is as
great as anyone's, providing him with multiple options everywhere, something
he has been painstakingly concerned to make work for him. Because his game
is made of more parts than most players, it takes more time, he believes, to
"I knew it would take a bit longer for me to learn how to play the right
way," Murray said earlier this month. "I'm only just starting to understand
my game better."
Nevertheless Castle sees Murray's game as like Djokovic's. "I see them as
playing a similar game, with Djokovic's heavier and a little bit further up
the court," he said. "If you look at every piece of their games, they are
very similar. Neither serve-volleys unless it's a radical surprise but both
can do it. Both can stand at the back and can counter-attack all day long.
It's just that Djokovic does some things a little bit better at the moment
but it doesn't have to stay that way."
Castle also believes that both will be volleying more by the time they reach
their mid-20s. It is an area where Murray, who crashed out to the unseeded
losing finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round in Melbourne, may
prove to have the greater touch and vision.
He may also be able to match Djokovic's impressive athleticism. Although the
Serb's training back home sounds impressive - running up Mount Zlatibor, a
4,500ft peak in the Dinaric Alps - and, although he has wonderful stamina
and balance, Murray has excellent speed.
Where Murray may struggle is matching Djokovic's new mentality. Not that
Murray is weak in that area. But Djokovic, already hardened by harsh
personal experiences which included leaving home at 12, now believes he can
be a world-beater.
Victory over Federer in a Masters Series final has been followed by beating
him in a major championship and now by winning a major. Djokovic is in a new
stratosphere of self-belief. For the time being Murray can only imagine he
can match that.
Return of serve
Harder and taken earlier
More frequent and sound
Resilient, hard-boiled and tenacious
Mobility and fitness
Great stamina and balance
Return of serve
More passive, more varied and imaginative
More touch, more potential
Cerebral streak, hints of volatility
Mobility and fitness
Great speed, improving stamina