At Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray continue a ‘Golden Era’

WIMBLEDON, England – At the All England Club, the magic begins even before the wrought iron gates open to public access, before the tennis nuts pull out their tents and camper chairs to get tickets. No need to wait until Monday morning if you’re lucky.

And if you’re lucky enough, a lifelong sense of misdirection can lead you away from where you were trying to go and in a completely different direction toward one hell of a training session. There, maybe Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray can hit the ball back and forth in brilliant, competitive fashion, as they were on Saturday. If you don’t think this is a common occurrence these days, it’s not.

The last time Murray and Djokovic trained together was in September at the Laver Cup, where they competed for Team Europe. Before then, Murray reckons it was in Australia in 2019, when a chronic hip injury had worsened enough to lead to his tearful hint that his career might be over.

This session, Murray explained to reporters Saturday, felt a little different.

“I did well in practice,” he said slowly, as if surprising himself.

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The training session was a fitting prelude to Wimbledon, where second-seeded Djokovic will try to extend his men’s Open Era record with his 24th Grand Slam championship and look to match Roger Federer’s mark of eight men’s singles titles here. Because the All England Club adheres to the ATP (and WTA) rankings, Carlos Alcaraz is the No. 1 seed. But Djokovic has won the last four titles here and, despite not having played an official match since winning the French Open last month, goes into Monday’s first-round clash with Argentina’s Pedro Cachin as the tournament’s underdog favorite in the same way that the sea is overwhelming. wet.

Murray, ranked 40th, is not seeded. But he has special value as a partner in being the only one of 128 contenders in the men’s draw to have beaten Djokovic on grass. The rarest occurrence happened 10 years ago when Murray won the second of his three Grand Slam titles, two of which have come at Wimbledon.

Saturday’s practice prompted renewed thinking, both about Djokovic’s dominance and an appreciation of Murray’s ability to disrupt the “big three” era. It also introduced the idea that among all the great, enduring twosomes in tennis – Venus and Serena Williams, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Federer and Rafael Nadal – the most suitable partner for a desperately serious, inscrutably disciplined Serbs could be a deadpan Scotsman with a metal hip.

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In terms of numbers, Djokovic’s biggest rival is Nadal, whom he has played a record 59 times, winning 30 to 29 (although Nadal has a 5-4 advantage in major finals). But after Murray and Djokovic practiced Saturday, they spoke to reporters in back-to-back news conferences that showed the spectrum of existence among world-class tennis players as well as any pairing ever has.

Separated by an inch in height and seven days in age, the 36-year-olds were the runners-up in the Federer-or-Nadal fever that defined the last two decades of men’s tennis. They found friendship – as well as a hitting partner – in each other early on, although it was quite uncommon to do so: Murray said he would occasionally practice with Nadal, but did not practice with Federer after 2007. Nadal and Djokovic hardly ever practiced, said Murray.

As a cozy relationship continued, they parted ways, partly due to chronic hip problems for Murray that required two surgeries, the latter of which permanently changed his perspective.

His pre-Wimbledon news conference, like almost all of his pre-Grand Slam news conferences today, centered on the subject of his eventual retirement.

Murray said he has an end date in mind, and while it’s not definitive, the mere act of telling himself his career won’t last forever is a necessity. He could not otherwise subject himself to the hours of hammering tennis, the travel schedule that separates him from his family, or the extraordinary daily measures he takes to keep his body in shape.

“Yeah, it’s a bit of that,” said Murray, who opens on Tuesday against British wildcard Ryan Peniston. “I actually started thinking about it during the Australian Open this year, after the matches I had. It was like, “It might not be so good for me in the long run to play those kinds of games.” I could probably keep doing that, I don’t know, until the hip is done. I really don’t mind.”

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It’s a relatable thought that difficult things can be done because they don’t last forever. This sentiment was characteristic of Murray’s defining characteristic during the brief period when the Big Three were a Big Four. Murray loved fans because he reminded them that what he, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic were doing was insanely difficult. Their feats seemed more amazing because of it.

But if Murray carried with him on Saturday the weighty reminder that every era comes to an end, Djokovic did the opposite. His words and demeanor, light and fresh as the summer breeze outside, gave the impression that he could do this forever.

Asked if Alcaraz’s lightning-quick ascent through the rankings bolsters him at a time when his main rivals are retired (Federer) or chronically injured (Nadal), Djokovic said: “Well, there’s always someone out there.” Asked if he has experienced a dip in motivation after claiming the record for Grand Slam men’s singles titles, Djokovic said: “So far the drive is still there. A few days after Roland Garros I was already thinking about grass preparation and what needs to be done. “

Djokovic said he still hungers “for more Grand Slams, more achievements in tennis” – an unfathomable drive that is his defining trait among his peers. On Saturday, nothing put that into greater relief than pitting him against Murray, two nights before the start of a tournament that means so much to both of them.

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