As Novak Djokovic knows better than most, the wolf running up the mountain is hungrier than the wolf standing on the hill.
The defending Australian Open champion recounted the fable shortly after winning his record-equalling sixth title last January. Back then he stood at the summit, surveying the tennis world from a great height: he had just won his third consecutive major title, and 11th overall, in his 17th consecutive final appearance – secured with his fifth victory at Melbourne Park over the man leading the chasing pack, Andy Murray.
“It’s a mind-set that one needs to have if one wants to stay up there,” Djokovic continued, unaware how prescient his words would read in retrospect. “You need to work double as hard when you're up there.”
Fast forward almost 12 months and it is the Scot, not the Serb, acclimatising to life at the top of the men’s game. Murray will be world No.1 and top seed at a major for the first time at the 2017 Australian Open – a fate both hard-earned by a sterling end to the Wimbledon champion’s season and assisted by Djokovic’s struggles with motivation, injury and off-court matters following his French Open triumph.
That Murray denied Djokovic the chance to regain the No.1 ranking in the final match of the season, winning his first ATP World Tour Finals title in the process, illustrates just how tight the margins between the two became in 2016. And yet, it seems that it was ever thus for two players whose fates have been inextricably linked since first meeting as 11-year-olds at an Under-12 tournament in France.
“In our first match, Andy destroyed me,” Djokovic once said of their first encounter, a 6-0 6-1 rout. “He had a lot of hair, a lot of curly hair. He was also quite pale.”
Born just a week apart, Murray – the elder – held the upper hand in their junior days, but it was Djokovic who first made the jump to professional tour, winning three ATP Challenger titles before his 17th birthday. Murray claimed two of his own after turning 17 and before winning the US Open boys’ title in 2004, but from that moment Djokovic remained a step ahead. He was the first to play a major at the 2005 Australian Open, the first to reach both the top 100 and top 10, and the first to reach a Grand Slam final, losing out to Roger Federer at the 2007 US Open.
By the time he won his first major, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the 2008 Australian Open, it was clear the Serb had made the adjustment to the senior ranks far quicker than the Scot. In time, both would join Federer and Rafael Nadal at the top of the men’s game, but while Djokovic broke up the ‘Fedal’ duopoly as he won three of the four majors and claimed the world No.1 ranking in 2011, Murray inherited the role of nearly-man, breaking down in tears after losing his fourth successive Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 2012.
But the wolf in Murray was still hungry, and the catalyst has been Djokovic. Six months earlier they had met in the semi-finals of the Australian Open – their only meeting before the final at Melbourne Park – and while the Serb had emerged victorious, the four-hour, 50-minute marathon confirmed in Murray that he could live with Djokovic’s long-distance game over five sets. When they met once more at that year’s US Open final, Murray – the newly-minted Olympic champion – needed four hours and 54 minutes to prove he could beat him when it mattered most.
And so it went, Murray pursuing Djokovic as the Serb pursued his place in the pantheon. In 2013 the Scot ended Great Britain’s 77-year wait for a men’s singles champion at Wimbledon, beating the Serb in straight sets in the final. A year later Djokovic had regrouped, regained the No.1 ranking ceded to Nadal, and embarked on a period of dominance that saw him claim six of the next eight majors.
Murray came off second-best in three of those finals, including the 2016 French Open final that left Djokovic with all four majors, something not seen in the men’s game since Rod Laver’s 1969 Grand Slam. The Serb had confirmed his status as the world’s best tennis player – but, as all those before him have found, such a title is only ever on lease.
“Paris is a dessert,” he had quipped when asked where his wolf would feast after Melbourne. Yet so it proved – the final course sating a hunger that had driven him to such heights. Boris Becker, his former coach, claims Djokovic spent less time on the practice court in the second half of 2016, and while he could appreciate the difficulty of maintaining an exacting work-life balance, the German believes the dip in form and appearance of injuries were an inevitable consequence.
“Our hands were tied a little bit because we couldn't do the work we wanted to do,” said Becker, whose three-year partnership with Djokovic ended in December. "He didn't spend as much time on the practice court in the last six months as he should have, and he knows that.”
As the Serb faltered, winning just one further title in 2016 – a veritable drought by previous standards – Murray rallied, starting with a second Wimbledon title and ending with a 24-match unbeaten streak that brought him four titles, and with it the world No.1 ranking.
For so long the hunter, Murray will return in 2017 as the hunted. But have the tables turned once more in the Murray-Djokovic rivalry? In short, it’s too soon to say. Djokovic dominates their head-to-head record 25-11, and while Murray has won two of their last three matches, Djokovic has won 13 of the 16 meetings since the Scot’s 2013 Wimbledon breakthrough.
There’s no denying that Murray has discovered a new dimension to his game – something he has devoted himself to with almost scientific efficiency.
“Last year [with] the improvements I made in the second serve, I won like three per cent more points on my second serve,” Murray said in Doha. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but over the course of a year it’s a big difference.
“I think to get to No.1 you need to win like 54 per cent of the total points you play in the year. You lose a lot of points that you play. Any percentage here or there that you can improve in your game is big. I managed to do that last year. Hopefully I can still find things to get a bit better this year – obviously, it’s going to be tough.”
As for Djokovic, the hunt is already underway, having joined Murray in Doha where the two faced off in a near-three-hour arm wrestle in the final. Murray saved match points in the second set before leading by a break in the third, only for Djokovic to find another level to defend his title 6-3 5-7 6-4, helping to draw a line under his six-month downswing ahead of the Australian Open.
“I don’t see the second six months of 2016 as a failure,” said Djokovic. “It’s not in my mind-set, in my philosophy of life to observe things in this way – that I didn’t succeed, that I failed, that I’ve fallen. I just feel like every experience is a blessing one way or another. Without a doubt, when I'm on the court there is no other thing than to win that tennis match."
For his part, Murray expects Djokovic to be the man applying the pressure, despite the mountain of points he must defend to stay in touch in the first half of 2017.
“In terms of the No.1 ranking, Novak would be [the biggest threat],” Murray said at the start of his ATP season in Doha, where he shares top billing with the Serb. “I had a great four, five months at the end of last year and I still only got to No.1 by one match at the end the year. I know it will be very tough to stay there.”
Nobody knows just how tough it will be more than the man now leading the chase.