That’s about to change after Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic won their respective semifinals Saturday, converging at the last to decide their year-end fate in London.
“I’m very honored to be part of history,” Djokovic told reporters. “I’m excited to go out on the court and battle.”
But if it’s the final the fans wanted and the match the script decreed, the players’ paths to Sunday’s showpiece couldn’t have been more different.
While Murray saved a match point against Milos Raonic in a marathon 3h 38m encounter — 5-7 7-6 (5) 7-6 (9) — to reach his first ever final at this tournament, Djokovic brutally crushed any hopes of a Kei Nishikori upset, wrapping things up in just over an hour, 6-1 6-1, to reach his fifth in succession.
Both players have their destiny in their own hands. Current No. 1 Murray is hoping to stay there, while Djokovic is keen to reclaim top spot after losing it to his childhood pal two weeks ago.
Murray’s match against Raonic hadn’t been pretty, and even if it was the sort of gritty victory he has become known for, a pair of record-breaking matches this week will surely have taken their toll on the 29-year-old.
“Obviously tomorrow is the last day for a while, get a break after that,” Murray told reporters. “I’ll just give my best of what I’ve got tomorrow. Hopefully it’s enough.
“I’ve played so much tennis over the last few months,” he also said.
Murray boosted his winning streak to a career-best 23 matches and has defeated three top-five players consecutively. Those victories have been particularly satisfying, given he hadn’t faced a top-five player — heading into London — since Djokovic in the French Open final in June.
“I’ve beat three guys in the top five in the world, which some people were not happy that I hadn’t won against the top-five players,” he said. “Then it will be the top two players, then top one. There’s always something wrong with what you’re doing.”
There was little wrong with Murray’s effort against Raonic. He was in trouble for much of the affair against the big-serving Canadian.
Raonic undeniably had the better of the first set, exploiting the noticeable fatigue of his opponent after an extra day’s rest.
In truth, the world No. 5 had been wasteful on the Murray serve — seizing just two of seven break point opportunities — but his profligacy initially went unpunished. With a place in the final in sight, Raonic had his first set against Murray since June 19 — exactly five months ago. To make matters better for Raonic, he broke early in the second.
But just as at Queen’s when Murray rallied to win the title, he was able to draw from his deepest reserves once again.
As if remembering what was at stake — he could become just the 17th man since the rankings began in 1973 to end the year No. 1 — Murray lifted his game.
He had beaten Raonic seven times in a row coming into the match — including in the Wimbledon final — and after Murray took the second set in a tense tiebreak, the momentum shifted in this grueling encounter.
“He’s really stepped up in these moments,” Raonic said of his opponent, ruing the opportunities he had missed both here and in Tuesday’s defeat to Djokovic.
Typically, just under half (48%) of Raonic’s first serves have gone unreturned this season; against Murray, one of the game’s great returners, that figure is down at 37%.
And it was his ability to deal with the imperious Raonic serve which ultimately saw him through, with Murray breaking twice in the final set, and again in the tiebreak. Murray was broken twice as he served for the encounter, requiring the tiebreak to settle proceedings.
Both men had match points — Murray the first three, then Raonic one, typifying the undulating nature of the afternoon — but a forehand into the net from Raonic at the death meant it was Murray who prevailed.
The pro-Murray crowd certainly approved.
“The longer the match went on, the louder the crowd got,” reflected Murray, who lives near London. “This is what we play for — matches like this and arenas like this. This is one of hardest matches I’ve played indoors.”
He nonetheless sealed his place in a fifth consecutive ATP final.
Murray had speculated earlier in the week that a final against Djokovic could be the “perfect” ending to his finest season, but he could have been forgiven for bristling at the sight of Djokovic in full flow.
Nishikori had taken the Brit the full distance and back again during their 3h20m clash on Wednesday — that was previously the longest three-set match in tournament history — taking the first set and threatening to spoil his homecoming party.
By way of contrast, the first set here was wrapped up after just 36 minutes, with Djokovic racing into a 4-0 lead as he bids to usurp Murray from the top of the pile.
In no mood to hang around, at times he was like a cat toying with his prey, and the crowd’s encouragement to the ailing Nishikori began to assume a tone of resignation in tandem with the player.
This was Djokovic as he hasn’t been seen in many months — the cracks filled in, the hints of self-doubt and off-court problems dispelled.
Djokovic leads Murray 24-10 in their duels and has prevailed in five of their last six tussles.
“Andy has definitely been the best player in the world for the last six months,” said Raonic. “The only thing that’s missing is that showdown with Novak.”