When Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray last stared each other down on a tennis court in 2017, the period signified a slight shift in the dynamic of their longtime rivalry. They were born a week apart, they had known each other from childhood and they both broke through on the ATP at exactly the same time, yet Djokovic had been the higher-ranked player in every single one of their first 34 professional meetings.
It took the season of Murray’s life in 2016 for him to finally, fleetingly, stand above Djokovic, usurping him as the No 1 at the close of the season. In hindsight, though, it took everything.
A few months later, Murray’s hip deteriorated. After a brief spell as an equal of Djokovic, he has spent the past five years simply trying to find a way to play high-level tennis again without pain. In that same period, meanwhile, Djokovic ploughed on, elevating his status from a legend to arguably the greatest player, winning eight more grand slam titles.
On Thursday in the third round of the Madrid Open, the pair will meet for the 37th time under completely different circumstances. Despite his contrasting fortunes, Djokovic is far from the apex of his powers. After sitting out almost all of the first three months of the year due to his unvaccinated status, his return has been difficult. Not only has rust coated his game, he has struggled badly with his conditioning.
It is only a matter of time before Djokovic recovers his level and his straightforward 6-3, 6-2 win against Gaël Monfils in his first match, which extended their head-to-head to a record 18-0, was a helpful start. After his victory, even before his third-round opponent was certain, Djokovic noted Murray’s improved movement while reflecting on his past successes.
“He’s one of the most important names that we have,” Djokovic said. “To have him still compete is great, and to have him even play at the high level as the time goes by is impressive, considering the surgery and what he has been through in the last few years. His resilience and fighting spirit is really inspiring.”
This has been quite a frustrating year for Murray so far, filled with innumerable wildcards and second-round losses, often when he meets his first seeded opponent. After another second-round defeat in Miami, Murray took a four-week training block on clay, working hard on his movement and officially joining forces with Ivan Lendl again.
Initially, Murray had not planned to compete in the clay court season at all, but after opting to take a wildcard into Madrid, the fruits of his work has been clear. Against Denis Shapovalov in the previous round he closed off his best win of the season brilliantly. His returning was tremendous, he found big serves under pressure, moved as well as Djokovic observed and confounded Shapovalov with his deep toolbox of shots.
Whether he has improved enough to have an impact against the best player in the world remains to be seen, but as Murray reminded viewers in an interview with Amazon Prime, the mere fact that this match-up exists again, and that Murray defeated a top-20 player to set it up once more, is a considerable achievement in itself.
“He’s the world No 1 and I’ve got a metal hip,” Murray said. “I didn’t know I’d get opportunities to play matches like this again. In theory I shouldn’t have a chance in the match. But I’ve worked my hardest, put myself in a great position and it’s a fantastic opportunity to play against him again on a big court in a huge tournament.”
On Wednesday, British success in Madrid continued as Dan Evans recovered from a perilous deficit to defeat Roberto Bautista Agut 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (2). Bautista Agut led 4-2 and 0-40 on Evans’s serve in the third set, then 5-3, but Evans recovered to clinch the match on a tie-break
Cameron Norrie followed Evans into the third round soon after, outplaying John Isner 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4.
In the women’s draw, Ons Jabeur marked herself as the player to beat after she dismantled the former champion Simona Halep 6-3, 6-2 to reach the semi-finals.