PARIS – To experience something he never has before – winning the French Open – Novak Djokovic has to do another thing he is rather quite familiar with: Beat Andy Murray in a tennis match.
When the world Nos. 1 and 2 face off on Sunday, the Serbian will once again be a match away from completing the career Grand Slam – winning all four of tennis’ majors – as he has three times prior in Paris.
It’s a hurdle the 29 year old would like to safely clear at long last having clipped it time and time again prior.
“It's always high on the priority list when I start a season, thinking about Roland Garros,” Djokovic said after a three-set win over Dominic Thiem, which he called his “best performance of the tournament.”
“I give myself another opportunity to win the trophy,” he said. “And Sunday I'll give my all, as always.”
As will Murray, who arrives in his first French Open final with a 10-23 career mark against Djokovic, though he won their most recent meeting, a 6-3, 6-3 victory in the Rome final just shy of three weeks ago.
What Murray has struggled with, however, is overcoming Djokovic in the best-of-five arena. The world No. 1 has won four best-of-five battles in a row, dating back to Murray’s Wimbledon triumph in 2013.
Does Rome loom large having been so recent? Or is Djokovic’s gladiatorial ability to top Murray when it matters most what weighs most on this match?
“These guys have been the best two players in the world this year, so I think this is very fitting,” said Paul Annacone, a former coach and Tennis Channel commentator. “I would give Novak the slight edge, but Andy is not unconfident, he is the only guy on tour other than Roger (Federer) that has beaten Djokovic more than once in the last couple of years.”
It’s been since that historic Wimbledon final that Murray has hoisted a Grand Slam trophy, in fact, having gone 10 Slams without a win and suffered two Australian Open final losses to Djokovic (including this January).
Yet similar to the situation that Serena Williams finds herself in on Saturday, Djokovic is the one who is punching against history the hardest: He has made it a personal goal to close the career Slam in Paris, and should he win on Sunday he will become the first man in the Open era since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all major titles at once.
“When everyone plays their best tennis, Novak is the best player in the world,” Annacone assured. “I’ve been amazed with Novak. Look at the competition he’s playing against. It’s amazing what he’s done. I’ve been so impressed. It’s been an awesome display of how good the guy is.”
In the era of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and the two of these guys, Djokovic has come out superior, though Murray would like to thwart that narrative on Sunday, buoyed by a stellar performance Friday against defending champion Stan Wawrinka, who he bested in four sets.
“I mean, it's obviously a very big match for both of us,” Murray said. “Novak is trying to win the career Slam so it's obviously a huge match for him, and I’m trying to win my first French Open, as well. Neither of us know how many more chances we'll have to win here.”
While Djokovic maintains a healthy head-to-head advantage, Annacone believes that this could become the game’s next great rivalry. The second serve is key on Sunday – particularly for Murray – as is execution on the big points and the ability to control the baseline, which Annacone said Djokovic is superior at.
“Andy has to use his variety; he has to make Novak uncomfortable,” Annacone reasoned. “He has to back Novak up off the baseline. As much as Andy is a great defender, no one has controlled the baseline like Novak has. Andy has to figure out how to impact that.”
That’s not easy to do against the player that most call the best returner in the game, either.
They are all too familiar with one another’s games, born just seven days apart and friends since their junior tennis days. Sunday one of them becomes French Open champion for the first time.
“Looking at our history … we [first] met when we were 11 years old and have played every year since,” Djokovic detailed. “If we knew back then that we were going to fight for the biggest trophies in this sport, I think we would both sign the document.”
It’s a familiarity that Annacone sees as favoring Djokovic – just barely.
“Last year coming into the final, it was so lopsidedly favored for Novak,” Annacone said. “Wawrinka went in there and swung away and won. Shocked everyone. In a weird way, this is more balanced. Andy is familiar to Novak and that helps Djokovic. He likes balance.”