It is noteworthy that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will meet in the Madrid Open. It would be noteworthy in any set of circumstances that these two champions and familiar rivals, but the particular backdrop to this particular encounter is unmistakable.
Djokovic, to a slight degree, and Murray, to a severe extent, are both relearning how to play. Djokovic’s year was derailed by COVID-19 complications in multiple continents. He was clearly rusty and is gaining back his rhythm and instincts. The look of a champion is coming back, but it’s instructive that an older Djokovic did need a few weeks to reclaim that sharper edge in his game. Relearning genuinely applies to the journey he is making. He made this journey in 2018 at Roland Garros before his breakthrough Wimbledon, which launched a third distinct dynastic period in his career. You could see in June of 2018 that some aspects of Djokovic’s game hadn’t fully returned. They came back at Wimbledon, one month later, and Djokovic again began to dominate the sport.
There are traces of that journey in Djokovic’s much shorter drive through the past few weeks.
The man Djokovic will face on Thursday is climbing a much taller mountain.
Andy Murray is playing tennis with a resurfaced metal hip. It is so much more of a struggle to play tennis than it used to be for Murray, but he has made his way to the Round of 16 and is still good enough that he will force a quality pro to work hard to beat him. Denis Shapovalov’s bailout shots and haywire errors create the precise formula for a Murray victory, his defense and constancy prevailing over a mistake-prone player.
Djokovic is therefore a terrible matchup for Murray, but let’s be honest: Murray has won something of value by simply getting the chance to face Nole again.
Murray, before beating Shapo, handled a very rusty Dominic Thiem. The Austrian is in the early stages of a relearning process. He knows — and we can all see it for ourselves — that it will take some time to regain fluidity, form and ferocity on the forehand Thiem has used to reach multiple Roland Garros finals and win the U.S. Open.
So many big names in tennis are relearning how to play, usually because of injury interruptions but sometimes for unusual reasons such as the ones Djokovic has faced.
In women’s tennis, this is also true. Bianca Andreescu has had numerous injury complications in her young career and is now trying to make her way back into the top tier of the sport. Naomi Osaka took a mental health break and is trying to discover how to thrive on the organic surfaces.
Simona Halep was derailed by injuries. Her relearning process has largely run its course, but she still has to win enough big matches that she can regain a place in the top eight and get better draws at big tournaments in the near future.
It’s a fascinating time in tennis. Djokovic and Murray are just some of the notable figures in the sport who have achieved much but are learning how to play again, at a new stage of their careers.