Novak Djokovic has powered into the Australian Open men's final. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
''I hope it's a painful match,'' Andy Murray said, as he looked forward to his third successive grand slam final. ''Because that means it will be a good one.''
Murray will play Novak Djokovic, who is not only the undisputed world No. 1 but the king of Rod Laver Arena. Just as Rafael Nadal rules Paris, and Roger Federer has the ultimate record at Wimbledon, so Djokovic produces his best tennis on the blue planet of Melbourne Park.
Last year, these two slugged it out for the best part of five hours in the most agonising of semi-finals. Murray lost, before taking revenge in an equally debilitating US Open final. But he knows there is no easy way to beat a man who covers the court as comfortably as a frigate's sail.
Victoria Azarenka celebrates her Open victory
Victoria Azarenka celebrates her Australian Open victory at the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. Photo: Angela Wylie
''You can't hit through him because he's an unbelievable mover,'' Murray said. ''We have so many long rallies, so I will need to be ready for pain.''
Murray hit an extraordinary tally of 62 winners on Friday in his five-set win against Federer, out-attacking the man usually considered to be the world's best attacking player. Now he will have to go to the other extreme, as he tries to out-defend the world's best defensive player.
The quality of Djokovic's movement and retrieval has always been high, but in this tournament he has reached another level. Andre Agassi on Friday spoke with wonderment about what he sees as the evolution of the sport, to a point where the old rules of engagement no longer apply.
Andy Murray (above) is ready for anything he’ll face from the defending champion. Photo: Pat Scala
''In my day, somebody who ran well was [Michael] Chang,'' Agassi said. ''And then you saw it go to Lleyton Hewitt, who would move even better. If you just were off on one [shot], he would then move forward in the court and turn a point around. Now you got problems if you don't keep him on the defensive. And then you take that to a guy like Djokovic, who probably moves even better than Hewitt and doesn't need to turn a point around. When he's on defence, he can actually win the point with one shot. That's an evolution of the game.''
One key question relates to the physical condition of Murray after his five-set, four-hour epic on Friday night. He has trained harder than ever before this winter in Miami, even replicating the rhythm of last year's Australian Open semi-final. Sunday we will find out whether all the sweat and toil will be rewarded.
''You never know how you're going to feel the next day,'' Murray said. ''I'm sure I'll be tired tomorrow and stiff and sore, so I need to make sure I sleep as long as possible tonight, do all of the recovery stuff. I'll hit very little tomorrow, I would have thought. You just try your best to be in the best condition for Sunday. Realistically, you're probably not going to feel perfect because of how the match went tonight. But it's not to say you can't recover well enough to play your best tennis.''
Federer agreed with most experts by making Djokovic the favourite for the final. Partly because he played his semi-final on Thursday, giving him two entirely clear days between matches. And partly because of the sublime quality that Djokovic produced in that match against David Ferrer, which led ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert to comment that he had ''never seen anybody hit the ball better or more cleanly''.
''Novak goes in as the favourite, I would think, even though Andy beat him at the US Open,'' Federer said. ''Maybe a day extra is going to make a difference. But it's not back-to-back [for Murray]. He has a day. He's had an easy run until the semis, until tonight. Maybe it [a five-set match] is something that Andy needed going into the final.'' Murray may be preparing himself for a painful experience, in victory or defeat. But no one else can wait for the next chapter of tennis' hottest rivalry.