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New York awaits another Murray-Djokovic epic

Michael Beattie at Flushing Meadows
September 3, 2014
Andy Murray says he and opponent Novak Djokovic play a similar style © Getty Images
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As of Monday, three matches now share the record for the latest finish to a match at the US Open. Kei Nishikori's five-set win over Milos Raonic ended at 2.26am, just as Philipp Kohlschreiber's 2012 victory over John Isner did, along with Mats Wilander's marathon against fellow Swede Mikael Pernfors back in 1993.

Two days on, the record could be under threat again.

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who clash in the US Open quarter-final on Wednesday, have previous. Their last meeting at Flushing Meadows, the 2012 final, was a four-hour-54-minute blockbuster, the longest final in US Open history.

It is the longest of their 20 encounters to date, but only by four minutes over the 2012 Australian Open semi-final. Just one of their last six matches has ended in a straight-sets win: Novak Djokovic's 6-4 6-3 win in Miami this year.

"We play a fairly similar style," Murray explains. "I think that's why a lot of the matches have been long games, long rallies, long points, because we do a lot of the same things well."

Of the various combinations among the big four in men's tennis, no two players more closely resemble one another on court than world No.1 Djokovic and two-time grand slam champion Murray.

Should both men produce their best on Arthur Ashe in the small hours of Thursday morning, it will be the ability to spot, produce and respond to the unexpected tactical shift that will set the winner apart.

For Djokovic, that means more of the same. The 2011 champion arrived in New York with question marks about his form and emotional state after two early exits in Toronto and Cincinnati were partially blamed on his marriage and impending fatherhood.

With four straight-sets wins to his name, he has answered those criticisms with a string of exclamation points, primarily by stepping onto and inside the baseline to starve his opponents of time.

And Murray? There's always something, but this year more than most. In the 14 months since winning Wimbledon he has dealt with back surgery, the split from former coach Ivan Lendl, the arrival of successor Amelie Mauresmo, a title drought and just one win against top-10 opposition - against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round in New York. As well-timed victories go, Murray couldn't have asked for better before facing the world No.1.

"I don't feel like I'm that far away from playing my best tennis," Murray said after beating No.9 seed Tsonga in straight sets, but warned: "I'm going to have to play extremely well to win the event, or even just to get through the next match."

Look at the record of their showdowns to date and a case can be made for either man to book his place in the semi-finals. Djokovic has won 12 of their 20 contests, and four of the last five. On hard courts he leads their rivalry 10-6, and he's 3-2 up on Murray at the majors.

But two of the three defining victories of the Scot's career to date - his first grand slam win at the US Open in 2012 and his Wimbledon triumph a year later - have come against Djokovic over the past two years. The third, his Olympic gold in 2012, included a semi-final win against the Serbian.

As for the conditions, the only certainty is that the sun will not be a factor. New York has been a close, humid tournament, as Murray knows all too well - he suffered an alarming bout of cramp in this first-round win over Robin Haase. Winds have been constant on Ashe this week, but having played as the fringes of hurricanes kissed Flushing Meadows in previous years, Murray won't be looking for excuses.

So where will the match be won and lost? With Djokovic entering irresistible form at just the right time, the onus will be on Murray to match and manipulate his opponent into places on the court his does not want to be.

Two strokes will be crucial tonight: Murray's serve and his volley.

First serve percentage is important to all players, but particularly Murray, whose second serve remains ripe for the crunching. Tsonga did just that at times during his second set of their fourth-round encounter. Keep a first serve percentage north of 60-65% and the Scot will be able to dictate play during his service games.

Then there's the up-court game. Murray converted a staggering 28 of 31 net approaches into points against Tsonga and would be well advised to commit to the same game plan against Djokovic, who may pass more often but not every time.

Aggression has been the buzzword around Murray in New York. He has hit more than 45 winners in three of his four matches to date, and hit 36 in the three-set win over Matthias Bachinger. Djokovic is unlikely to concede as many, but that should not stop Murray from staying on the attack to draw the error.

From the moment the draw was released, the prospect of a Murray-Djokovic showdown was all anyone could talk about. For his part, Djokovic is wary of Murray in spite of his problems over the past year.

"He performs his best in the grand slams," the No.1 seed said. "Even though he had this back surgery last year that kept him off the tour for the last few months of the season, in the big matches, as the tournament progresses, he's still fit. He still plays very high quality tennis. That's what I expect him to do."

Murray expects the same. "That's really why we play the game," he said of the prospect of facing Djokovic, even so early in a grand slam. "That's what you put the work in for, so that when you come to these events and you do have to play against the best players that you're ready. As much as it's incredibly tough and challenging, the match, that's what you enjoy.

"Playing on Wednesday night against the No.1 player in the world is exciting. If you aren't getting motivated or pumped for those matches, then that's when there's a problem and it's maybe time to stop."

The double-handed backhand will be key to Novak Djokovic's game © Getty Images
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