As Federer and Nadal inevitably dwindle in productivity with the years, the two men behind them look ready to ignite the next grand rivalry atop the men’s game.  Djokovic and Murray meet for the sixth time in the last eight months, having clashed on the stages of the Olympics, the US Open, the Shanghai Masters 1000 tournament, and the year-end championships.  Until now, their rivalry has simmered as a subplot below those involving the two more storied stars, but the time may have arrived for them to stand under the center of the spotlight for good.

Most of the previous meetings between these men who have known each other well since juniors have hinged upon the current form and mental state of Djokovic.  After he dominated the initial stages of their rivalry, Murray capitalized upon the Serb’s 2009-10 malaise to assert himself.  With Djokovic’s immortal 2011 campaign came a second span of his dominance, although the Scot picked off an occasional win at less prominent tournaments.  That period reached its endpoint with the former’s routine victory in the Miami final last spring, after which Murray built much of his transcendent summer upon two key victories over his friend and foe.  With the second of those, the US Open final, a significant turn in the rivalry’s trajectory appeared to have emerged, but Djokovic halted it emphatically by saving five match points en route to winning their next meeting.  Fittingly, then, the outcomes have grown less predictable as the history between them has grown more intense. 

Two men who play essentially the same style, Djokovic and Murray often have brought out the worst in each other from the perspective of quality, although not the perspective of drama.  Able to cover the court with suffocating sprawl, they often respect each other’s defense so much that they slip into passivity from behind the baseline rather than forcing the issue.  At other times, they choose the wrong moments to shift into aggression and pay the price exacted by the crisp passing shots across the net.  As both men acknowledged, this final should become a test of fitness filled with epic rallies and tightly contested service games, a product of the outstanding returns on display. Neither man will want to hit a second serve, so first-serve percentage will loom large.  More consistent from their two-handers, the best in the ATP, Djokovic and Murray can project ferocious firepower from their forehands as well but can lose their range on that shot under pressure. 

Auspicious for the third seed was his ability to dominate behind his serve against Federer, even recognizing that the Swiss does not return as well as the Serb.  If Murray can find that steady rhythm on his first serve again, he can take more risks on return games in the knowledge that he can hold.  On the other hand, struggles on serve can degrade his confidence and thus the rest of his game, which no opponent had tested until Federer in the semifinals.  Tested much more in his earlier matches, Djokovic has traced somewhat the opposite route from Murray’s escalating competition.  Once he escaped the relentless challenge of Stanislas Wawrinka in the match of the tournament, his play soared to a new level.  Rolling past David Ferrer in a nearly flawless performance, he appears to have peaked at just the right time in the tournament where he has won three of his five major titles. 

In the wake of a melodramatic women’s final, the men’s final hopefully will close the Australian Open on a less contentious, more respectful note.  It’s time to put the “Happy” back in the Happy Slam.