THE NASCENT union of Britain’s Andy Murray and new coach Ivan Lendl faces its first major test this morning, when the Scot faces world No1 Novak Djokovic for a place in the Australian Open final.
Murray hired multiple grand slam champion Lendl at the turn of the year in a bid to polish his remaining rough edges and, perhaps unsurprisingly, evidence of his influence has been inconclusive thus far.
The world No4 won his pre-Melbourne warm-up tournament in Brisbane and has coasted through to the latter stages of this competition with few stumbles, dropping only one set, in a rusty first-round performance.
But such form has become standard procedure for Murray, who has advanced to the semi-finals for the fifth grand slam in succession. The indisputable test of his progress will be whether he can finally lift a first major title.
The fourth seed has experienced a peculiar stage fright in each of his three grand slam final appearances, failing to win even a single set, despite claiming notable scalps in previous rounds.
He has been called a bottler; a nearly man; another limited player found wanting in the cauldron of the highest-pressure occasions. To those unfortunates, Lendl is something of a patron saint.
Like Murray, the Czech succumbed in several grand slam finals before finally breaking the curse with a gargantuan effort at the 1984 French Open, when he came from two sets and 4-2 down to beat John McEnroe.
It was his fifth attempt and proved a watershed moment. A Lendl coursing with renewed belief gobbled up seven more grand slams, including three consecutive US Opens, despite the presence of rivals McEnroe, Boris Becker and Mats Wilander.
Djokovic, still riding the crest of a phenomenal 2011, is an opponent to rank alongside those greats and defeating the current Australian Open, French Open and US Open champions looks a task every bit as daunting.
The Serb obliterated Murray in last year’s final and has lost just six times in his last 83 matches, with two of those coming at the year-ending World Tour Finals in London, when he was exhausted and physically ravaged.
Eliminating Djokovic would not silence Murray’s doubters – he would still have to vanquish the formidable Rafael Nadal in Sunday’s final to lay those ghosts to rest – but overcoming such a huge hurdle would strengthen the feeling that his own watershed success is imminent.
HEAD TO HEAD | MURRAY V DJOKOVIC
24 Age 24
2005 Turned Pro 2003
Head To Head Record
4* Overall 6
4* Hard Court 4
0 Clay 2
0 Grass 0
0 At Australian Open 1
0 At Grand Slams 1
4* At Masters Events 5
*Includes one Djokovic retirement