After playing 33 times, there’s not really any tactical revelations or tricks to pull out of the bag. For Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, it’s simply all about who executes better and who holds up mentally, with maybe some impact from the surface and weather.
As the two members of the Big Four lacking a Roland Garros title, they’ll play for the third time in the last month on clay, equaling the total from the rest of their careers combined. Yet their Madrid and Rome finals from May don’t shed much light on Sunday’s final, as Madrid doesn’t really correlate to Paris and Djokovic was exhausted in Rome.
The only real takeaways were already apparent: Djokovic has felt the tension of history during this clay swing and that Murray needs to play offensive tennis.
Speaking as someone who was not surprised by (and predicted) Stan Wawrinka’s upset in last year’s final, this is the best chance Djokovic, 29, will ever get to win the French. For as great as Murray is (now one of 10 players to make the final at all four majors), he possesses neither the clay prowess and historical aura of Rafael Nadal nor the nuclear firepower of a locked-in Wawrinka.
If Murray is to win, he’s likely going to need to make Djokovic’s nerves appear again as they have in the past. That means playing proactive, intelligent tennis as he did in his brilliant semifinal performance against Wawrinka, getting first serves in, and not wilting mentally as in prior meetings of this rivalry. Murray takes pride in physically draining opponents – he sapped Richard Gasquet’s legs in the quarterfinals – but his mental fatigue manifests itself physically too often against Djokovic (and also Nadal, as seen in Monte-Carlo).
The Scot will need to keep in touch with the World No. 1 to keep the pressure on. Even up two sets in last year’s semi at this event, Djokovic still tightened up some before Murray “let go of the rope” in a runaway fifth set that had to be played on Saturday.
If Murray can just split sets to start and ensure that this match will approach the four hour mark (cue cries of “Please, no!” from people who hate the type of tennis this rivalry produces), it’ll represent his best chance to make Djokovic feel the weight of the moment as he goes for not just the career Grand Slam, but also holding all four Slams at the same time, which hasn’t been done since Rod Laver in 1969. Though some of their recent hardcourt meetings have been absolute blowouts in favor of the Serb, Djokovic’s other-worldly returning has not fully translated to the dirt this season, so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for Murray to be able to extend this match in some sense.
While Djokovic is a big favorite here, it’s a personal philosophy in this space to treat the idea of holding all four majors at once as “I’ll believe it when I see it.” It will take a special effort, but I’m going with the upset again: Murray in 5.