Almost every junior tennis player has a rival growing up. But it’s not often those kids grow up to be so good that they battle for the No. 1 FedEx ATP Ranking.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who were born one week apart in May 1987, first played one another aged 11. But not only have they remained great friends more than two decades later, they have developed a captivating rivalry.
“We have known each other since very, very early days,” Djokovic said at the 2016 Rolex Paris Masters, where Murray clinched World No. 1 for the first time. “To see how he has raised his level in the past 12 months is quite extraordinary.”
When Djokovic and Murray clash, there has almost always been a lot at stake. Nineteen of their 36 ATP Head2Head meetings (Djokovic leads 25-11) have come in a final, and 33 of their 36 meetings have come at a Grand Slam, ATP Masters 1000, the Nitto ATP Finals or the Olympics. They have met in all four Grand Slam finals.
The childhood friends first played for a tour-level trophy at the 2008 Western & Southern Open, when they were both 21. Djokovic was already a four-time Masters 1000 champion, and he’d won that year’s Australian Open. The Serbian earned plenty of momentum in the semi-finals with a straight-sets victory against Rafael Nadal. But Murray, a first-time Masters 1000 finalist who was ranked No. 9, would not be denied, defeating Djokovic 7-6(4), 7-6(5).
“I played some rocket tennis, the way my coach says,” Djokovic said. “Today I was trying to do the same, but I got rocket back.”
Djokovic has won 14 more matches than Murray in their rivalry, but in title matches, the Serbian leads 11-8.
The pair plays a similar style: Djokovic and Murray are both excellent on defence, capable of playing aggressively, and they are two of the best returners in the sport.
“When you play against the best players in the world you go in knowing that you have to play great tennis to win,” Murray said. “Sometimes you do and you don’t win. They’re that good.”
The biggest moment of their decades-long rivalry came at the 2016 Nitto ATP Finals. The week before, Murray had taken World No. 1 for the first time. But both men worked their way to the final, and the winner was guaranteed the coveted year-end No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Murray, who saved a match point in his semi-final against Milos Raonic, played clean tennis to defeat Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 to take the title and World No. 1. It was his 23rd consecutive win, capping a fairytale run to end 2016 atop tennis’ mountain.
“It was obviously a big, big match against someone who I’ve played so many big matches against in my career. That would be my main rival really throughout my career,” Murray said of Djokovic. “We played in all of the Slam finals, Olympics, obviously here now, and a match to finish the year No. 1. We played in loads of Masters Series finals, as well, and are one week apart in age. It was obviously a big match, a very important win for me. It was just a huge match to finish the year, to try and obviously finish No. 1.”
Even though Djokovic and Murray have played for each of the Grand Slam titles, World No. 1, and plenty more, they’ve always maintained the utmost respect for one another. According to Murray, off the court, they don’t discuss tennis.
“When me and Novak speak with each other, we don’t talk about tennis, rankings, the matches we play against each other,” Murray said. in 2016 “Maybe when we finish playing, that might change. But we talk about each other’s families, children and stuff. We chatted at length this year quite a lot because obviously I became a father the first time. We spoke about the difficulty in keeping the sort of balance in your life with the family and the travelling and the work and everything.”
That was at the same time as they battled for World No. 1, showing that rivals could be great friends, too.