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Friends face off in men's final

MELBOURNE, Australia — Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were 13 when they first played tennis against each other. It was in the southern French city of Tarbes in a junior tournament called Les Petits As. Murray won in a hurry.

"I won, 6-0, 6-1, maybe," Murray said. "A lot's changed since then. I'm sure it will be just a bit tougher than that on Sunday."

On Sunday, the two former junior rivals, born a week apart in May 1987, play each other for the first time in a Grand Slam final, with the Australian Open title at stake.

Djokovic, a 23-year-old from Serbia, got there first, playing one of the most convincing matches of his career to defeat Roger Federer in straight sets Thursday. Murray, a 23-year-old from Britain, in his Friday semifinal had to hustle, scrap and think on the run for 3 hours and 46 minutes before shaking free of indefatigable Spanish baseliner David Ferrer.

Murray's 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-1, 7-6 (7-2) victory was filled with extended rallies and memorable defense, but the differences in the end were Murray's bigger serve and bolder tactics.

"I came in with great belief and great desire," said Ferrer, the No. 7 seed, who eliminated compatriot Rafael Nadal, the top seed. "But when it came down to it, he had too many weapons."

The firepower will be more evenly distributed when fifth seed Murray, a finalist last year, faces third seed Djokovic.

They have been friends for years and have even played doubles together on the tour. Although they decided to keep a distance when they emerged as top-10 players, they have spent more time together recently, practicing together in Perth during the Hopman Cup and practicing and playing soccer against each other in Melbourne.

"I think we reconnected again and have become a bit closer," Djokovic said. "We grew up together. We basically made a breakthrough to top 100 more or less at the same time. It's nice to see somebody doing well … who was your longtime friend."

Such generosity of spirit has its limits. Djokovic is trying to return to the summit after winning his only Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in 2008. Murray has yet to scale such heights, losing in the 2008 U.S. Open final and in last year's Australian Open final, both times to Federer in straight sets.

"It was tough … but something that I think overall would have made me a better player, stronger mentally," Murray said.

No British player has won a major singles title since Fred Perry won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1936, a statistic that Murray, born in Glasgow, Scotland, has probably heard and read enough times that he murmurs it in his sleep.

"The historical thing, it's not something that I've thought about that much, but it's something that obviously for me personally I want to try and win," he said. "But I also don't want to get myself so amped up that I play a stinker of a match.

.Fast Facts

Men's final

Novak Djokovic (3) vs. Andy Murray (5), 3 a.m. Sunday. TV: ESPN2

Women's final

The match between Kim Clijsters (3) and Li Na (9) was early this morning. For the result, go to sports.tampabay.com.

Friends face off in men's final 01/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 11:52pm]
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