MELBOURNE, Australia – After growing up together on the tennis circuit, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have yet to meet in a major. That all changes Sunday at the Australian Open.
The two men who have come to be considered the best of the rest — that is, after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — will face each other for the first time in a Grand Slam. One will walk away with the title.
It may seem as though it's been a long time coming for Djokovic and Murray, who in practice sessions and pickup soccer games this year have rekindled a friendship first struck when they were gangly preteens on the tour.
That's due in part to the dominance of Federer and Nadal, who between them have won 21 of the past 23 majors. As consistently high-ranked players — Djokovic is No. 3 and Murray No. 5 — they invariably start on opposite sides of the draw at majors, and that means they are almost certain to bump into the No. 1 or the No. 2 before they meet each other.
Not this time.
Djokovic beat defending champion Federer in the semifinals and an injured Nadal was ousted in the quarterfinals by David Ferrer on the other side of the draw, leaving the door open for Murray. Sunday's final will be the first time neither Federer nor Nadal have played in a Grand Slam final since the 2008 Australian Open, when Djokovic defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to win his first major.
For Djokovic, it's about time.
"They have been so dominant, such a strong two tennis players mentally, it's just been fantastic to watch them dominate the tennis on one hand," Djokovic said Saturday. "On the other hand, it was frustrating because you don't have the opportunity of maybe winning more Grand Slams.
"But over the years playing against them, you kind of get to know them better and start believing in yourself more that you can win. I think right now there are a couple players that are actually believing they can win against Rafa and Roger."
With one major trophy already on Djokovic's shelf, the stakes on Sunday are higher for his friend.
Murray, who jokes dryly that he is considered British when he wins and Scottish when he loses, is being watched by a United Kingdom that has been waiting almost 75 years for a new men's singles champion. Sunday might be his best chance.
Djokovic and Murray, both 23, have played each other seven times on the men's tour. The Serbian won the first four, but Murray has won the last three, all on hard courts.
The two men, born within a week of each other in May 1987, first met in juniors at 11 or 12, when Murray won in straight sets. They played a few more times and got along well, even teaming up for doubles, when Djokovic's basic English skills and Murray's thick Scottish brogue made communication difficult.
"Back then, we were speaking kind of more with the signs, you know, hands and legs and stuff," Djokovic said.
They took different paths through Europe to the professional tour, Murray training in Spain while Djokovic went to Italy and Germany. They met for the first time on the men's tour in 2006.
Since then, Djokovic has won 18 career titles; Murray 16. Djokovic has the Australian Open trophy and was runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2007 and last year. Murray's best Grand Slam results were runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2008 and the Australian Open last year — he lost both to Federer.
"It's been a great, well, childhood, if you can say, that we had together," Djokovic said. "So it's been a nice story, you know, about both of us. And to be able to meet him in a Grand Slam final, it makes it even more special."
The two practiced together in Perth ahead of the Australian Open, and kicked the soccer ball around — "he won, unfortunately," Djokovic said.
Djokovic recalls Murray as a kid with big hair who was under media pressure even then as Britain's best hope to win a major for the first time since Fred Perry in 1936.
The Serb has developed an off-court persona as a jokester, with comic impersonations of other players and a relaxed confidence that belies his on-court intensity. When an ATP official started a news conference on Saturday by mistakenly announcing "questions for Andy," Djokovic made a joke out of it, pretending to storm out before retaking his seat and saying he didn't know how he could work under such conditions.
Murray appears more stern, or at least serious. His reputation is for rebuking himself on the court and maintaining a cautious demeanor before the media. Asked to recall his early memories of his final rival, Murray said Djokovic developed a lot faster as a player, but says he's caught up now.
As kids, they shared big dreams.
"I don't think we were planning to meet each other, but we were dreaming of being in a Grand Slam final," Djokovic said. "You could already feel at that stage when we were 12, 13, 14, that we both have a talent and we both have great motivation and mentality to succeed."
But expect no quarter given by either of them on Sunday.
"We have to forget about all that when we step on the court," Djokovic said. "It's all business."