Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Djokovic & Murray - Best Mates Again

Courtesy: Independent

New world No 2 tells Paul Newman why his friendship with the Scot, first established in their junior days, is thriving again as they prepare to play doubles together this week

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic last played together in Australia in 2006, since when the Serb has been more successful, beating Murray in this year's Australian final

When they last met, in the final of the Australian Open two months ago, they were friends and rivals. When they next walk out on court together, at the Miami Masters beginning tomorrow, they will do so as friends and doubles partners.

Novak Djokovic's friendship with Andy Murray, dating back to their first meeting at a junior tournament in France 13 years ago, has always risen above the rivalry that has been inevitable in their careers. The widely differing fortunes the two 23-year-olds have experienced in recent weeks – Murray has not won a set, let alone a match, since the Australian Open semi-finals, while Djokovic has won three tournaments in a row this year – has done nothing to change that.

Even in the immediate aftermath of Djokovic's crushing victory in the Melbourne final, the bonds between the two men and their families were reinforced when the Scot's mother, Judy, sought out the winner. "It was a very difficult time for her after the match, but she came and congratulated me and we had a chat," Djokovic said. "She always says hello and we always have a chat when we see each other. That shows something not just about her but about her whole family."

The parallel lives of the two men, who in Miami will be playing doubles together for only the second time in their careers, go back to the very start. They were both born in May 1987 (Murray is one week older) and both have tennis-playing brothers. Jamie Murray, aged 25, is world No 43 in doubles, while Marko Djokovic, 19, is world No 641 in singles, his career having been interrupted by injury. He played doubles with his older brother in Dubai last month, while the Murrays played together most recently in Indian Wells last week. Djokovic has a second brother, Djorde, 15, who is at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida.

Both Murray and Djokovic went abroad as teenagers to further their careers, the Scot to the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona and the Serb to Niki Pilic's establishment in Munich. Murray was the more successful junior (Djokovic reached the Australian Open boys' final, Murray won the US Open title), while Djokovic has often led the way at senior level.

Djokovic broke into the world's top 100 in July 2005, three months earlier than Murray, and the top 10 in March 2007, one month ahead of the Scot. Although Murray was the first to win a tour title, five months ahead of Djokovic in February 2006, the Serb was the first by 17 months to wear a Masters Series crown, in March 2007.

Most importantly of all, Djokovic was the first to reach a Grand Slam final, at the US Open in 2007, and has since won two major titles, at the Australian Open in 2008 and 2011. Murray has reached three Grand Slam finals but lost them all, at the US Open in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2010 and 2011.

Djokjovic, nevertheless, is convinced it is only a matter of time before Murray wins his first Grand Slam title. He also believes his friend will quickly overcome any adverse reaction he has suffered to his disappointing defeat in Melbourne.

"I'm sure it's not easy for him to lose a third Grand Slam final in a row, but he has faced that situation before and I'm sure he's going to recover because he's mentally a strong player," Djokovic said. "He obviously needs a little bit more time to find his way through to his first Grand Slam title. He has all the qualities he needs. He has shown it many times before. He is definitely one of the best players in the world. With his game, especially on hard courts, he will have many more opportunities."

Murray and Djokovic quickly struck up a friendship on the junior circuit, where the Scot won their first meeting 6-0, 6-1 at an Under-12s tournament in Tarbes in south-west France. Djokovic picked up English from an early age but at first had to communicate in sign language with Murray because he struggled to understand his accent.

They were part of a great generation of emerging juniors that also included Rafael Nadal, Richard Gasquet and Gaƫl Monfils. "You could see with all our group that they were great athletes with a big desire to be successful," Djokovic recalled. "They showed some incredible talent. I still think Gasquet is the most talented player of all that group, though he still has to fulfil his potential.

"I always remember Andy as a very talented player who was always very confident on the court, regardless of who was on the other side of the net. You could already see at that time that he would succeed. From a young age we got on well. We were always quite good friends. Then our paths separated, because he went to practise in Spain and I went in my own direction.

"We didn't see so much of each other for a while, but in the last 12 months we've grown closer again. I feel that Andy's more relaxed now, both on and off the court. He's surrounded by a great team. We all get along really well – his team and my team. We get to practise, we even get to play football together, like we did in Australia. It's good.

"Sometimes we catch up for dinner. It's good to see somebody you grew up with doing so well in professional tennis and it's great to show to people that top-five players, who are big rivals on the court, can be really good friends as well."

Do they ever exchange notes on how to beat other players? "We do talk about matches and, of course, we do get to chat like this every now and then," Djokovic said. "We might talk about it at practice, but it would more usually be in the locker room or a restaurant, when we're watching matches and just talking it through. Tennis is our common subject and something we can always talk about."

Djokovic has won five of their eight meetings at senior level, though Murray had won three in a row until his defeat in Melbourne. "We have more or less similar games," Djokovic said. "We put some variety in our games depending on who we play, but our games are based on the baseline. We can mix it up. We can play spin, defensive, offensive, and we have quite solid serves."

Like Murray, Djokovic thrives on having both a close-knit support team and family members who join him on tour. "I grew up in a country where the family is the most important thing, so keeping close relations with family members comes naturally," he said. "Luckily for me I'm not just surrounded with a family that thinks the best of me but also with a travelling team of people who are very close to me – my girlfriend, when she can be with me, my coach, my physio."

Djokovic is heading for Florida via Colombia, where he was due to play an exhibition match against Nadal last night, before joining Murray in Miami. The singles will be the Scot's priority there, particularly after his straight-sets defeats to Marcos Baghdatis in Rotterdam and to Donald Young in Indian Wells in his only post-Australia matches, though the tournament also gives an opportunity to renew his friendship with Djokovic. The two men have played doubles together only once before, at the Australian Open five years ago, when they were unfortunate to run into Nenad Zimonjic and Fabrice Santoro, one of the world's best partnerships, in the first round.

As for their singles careers, Murray will need to put his game back together quickly if he is to make up the ground he has lost on his friend in recent weeks. Djokovic has gone from strength to strength, winning 20 matches in a row since his defeat to Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London in November. In the last four months he has led Serbia to victory in the Davis Cup and won titles in Melbourne, Dubai and Indian Wells. He clinched the latter on Sunday night, beating Nadal, the world No 1, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the final, and climbed above Federer to No 2 in yesterday's updated world ranking list.

While Djokovic said he did not worry too much about the rankings, he felt his rise to No 2 was a reflection of his achievements this year. "I think I deserve it," he said. "I've played the best tennis of my life in last three months. I have been very dedicated, very professional, and I want to keep on going."

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