New year, new rivalry

The longest final in Grand Slam history settled the issue last time around at Rod Laver Arena. The five hour 53 minute battle in 2012 can lay just claim to being the center-piece of the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry, which in turn had, around the turn of the decade, steadily supplanted the more storied one between Federer and Nadal.

A year later, all the pre-tournament talk has centered around another pair. A win on the final Sunday of January will make Djokovic the only male in the Open era to win the Australian Open title thrice in a row. Andy Murray, unlike anybody before him, attempts to add a second Slam right after winning his first.

Even as Djokovic and Nadal were slugging it out for 2012's first Slam, there were indications that there was something brewing. The final overshadowed an equally immense and draining battle between Djokovic and Murray in the semifinal which lasted 10 minutes short of five hours. And if that was how the year began, it ended with Murray getting one back against Djokovic, this time in the final of the US Open.

The last year seemed largely one of consolidation for the top four, with each of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray winning a Major each. Things have changed since. Like Rahul Dravid said of Ricky Ponting's final years, Federer's seem to be missing the inevitability, the assurance of performance. With a long-term knee injury keeping Nadal out, the path is more or less cleared for Djokovic and Murray to establish themselves as the pre-eminent rivals of the year. That explanation is perhaps a touch uncharitable to the way the pair have raised their levels recently ó Djokovic has been a changed player since his three-Slam 2011; the Olympic gold and maiden Slam could make 2012 equally significant for Murray. The direction their rivalry takes, more than anything else, might decide the destination of this year's four Majors.

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