LONDON (Reuters) - During a fortnight of seismic shocks, scattered seeds and bandaged knees there remained a sense of inevitability that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would walk out on Centre Court to contest the Wimbledon final on Sunday.
For the third time in the last four grand slams the two men born within a week of each other and whose careers have followed the same trajectory will go toe-to-toe for major silverware.
Their rivalry is fast over-taking the one between Swiss great Roger Federer and Spanish warrior Rafa Nadal, whose early defeats in the tournament are already fading memories.
World number one Djokovic leads their series 11-7 but they have never met at the Wimbledon championships and, despite the Serb’s one title here in 2011, Murray is arguably the better grasscourt player, if only by a tiny margin.
He beat Djokovic on Centre Court in the Olympic semi-finals last year, going on to claim gold against Federer.
That breakthrough released the beast inside the 26-year-old Scot and a few months later he claimed his first grand slam title by edging Djokovic in an gripping U.S. Open final.
Murray lost to Djokovic in this year’s Australian Open final but now he has the Serb in his sights on his home turf as, for the second year in succession, he stands within one victory of ending Britain’s 77-year wait for a Wimbledon’s men’s champion.
Last year’s defeat in the final by Federer proved a watershed moment for Murray.
He said himself this week that 12 months ago he was happy to be in the final. Now, he expects to win it.
“I might wake up on Sunday and be unbelievably nervous, more nervous than I ever have been before,” Murray said after reaching his seventh grand slam title by dousing the fire of Polish upstart Jerzy Janowicz in Friday’s semi-finals.
“But I wouldn’t expect to be.”
Murray is on a 17-match winning streak on grass, taking in last year’s Olympic gold rush and his victory at Queen’s Club but Djokovic presents the most formidable of obstacles.
One of the greatest retrievers the game has ever seen, the six-times grand slam champion reached the last four in cruise control but needed every gear on the cog to subdue the magnificent Juan Martin del Potro in the longest semi-final ever played at the All England Club.
The intensity of that match was such that Murray’s legions of fans, the 15,000 in centre Court, the thousands queuing to watch on the hill (surely soon to be named Murray Mount) and the millions sat in front of their TVs will be searching for a chink in the Djokovic armour.
They will probably be disappointed as Djokovic has proved time and again that he can play two titanic matches back to back, notably when he beat Murray in a lung-bursting five-set semi-final in Melbourne in 2012, then beat Nadal two days later in the longest grand slam final ever.
“I‘m not the first time in this situation,” Djokovic, who has reached his 11th grand slam final, told reporters.
”I was in worse situations actually before, like in Australian Open 2012, or some occasions where I managed to recover, managed to win the title in the final, managed to feel fresh and play another six hours.
“I‘m ready and I‘m looking forward to that.”
Djokovic knows the vast majority of the crowd will be roaring on Murray but is relishing playing in an atmosphere he said would be “loud” if it goes to a deciding set.
“He’s a local hero. He has a big chance to win Wimbledon after a long time for this nation. People will be supporting him,” Djokovic said.
”It’s not the first time that I’ve been in a similar situations when I played against local players.
“I know what I need to do. I‘m ready for it.”
The two friends, whose relationships has become more professional now that they are contesting the sport’s top prizes, are so well-matched there are no short cuts to victory.
Both are rock solid from the baseline, possess stinging returns of serve, move with supreme athleticism and have a bottomless reservoir of self-belief.
With temperatures expected to climb into the high 80 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday and neither player prepared to cede an inch of turf, the final will be one of hard graft and perspiration but ultimately decided by moments of inspiration.
Editing by Ed Osmond