"We are the same age," Djokovic said on the eve of defending his Australian Open title against Murray for the second time in three years. "There's only a week difference between us. We have known each other since we were 11, 12-years-old. I guess that adds something very special to our rivalry."
The Serb's voice was soft and warm, tinged with affection. "We were just trying to play the tennis and enjoy this game back then."
What was Murray like? "Well, I know he had a lot of hair, a lot of curly hair. He was quite pale also. Now he has a tan. As we developed, we improved our games, we improved as athletes, as people, and it's nice to see somebody that you grew up with doing so well … And then of course, being your top rival."
Those last three words – unintentionally or not – mark the start of the new era. There can no longer be any doubt: Djokovic, for one, does not look upon Federer and the absent Nadal as the chief threats to his dominance. Nor does Murray, although he would not say it so bluntly.
We can be sure their friendship, which dips and soars like any other, will matter little when they step on to the main court at Melbourne Park on Sunday (8.30am UK time). This is not just a tennis match, it is, as George Orwell might have said, war without guns. Raw aggression is in the air. Regardless of their sublime skills, subtlety will be a by-product. They will leave nothing on court.
We need to look more closely at the champion's final thoughts for further elucidation. Obfuscation eludes Djokovic, a man born to entertain with racket and tongue. So, when he says Murray, "hasn't been really tested the whole tournament", he not only is dismissing Federer, the man the Scot beat to reach his sixth slam final (his third in Melbourne), he is issuing a veiled warning: the real test arrives now, he says, in the Rod Laver Arena, where he humiliated Murray in three sets two years ago in the final, where they shared glory over five sets a year ago in the semi‑final.
He also seemed to suggest that Murray defeated him in the US Open final last September partly because of the wind that whipped through Flushing Meadows. "The circumstances were quite strange. The wind for the semi-finals and final was just incredible. I've never played in a stronger wind. So it was more of an adjustment for him and me, and he managed to come out as a winner because he found his way in those conditions.
"I know I didn't do anything particularly wrong. He was just a better player that day. He absolutely deserved it because he's been around as a top player for many years. He played in many finals of grand slams. He finally won his title."
Yet Djokovic managed to make a compliment sound like a threat, perhaps a promise: if there is little or no wind here, he does not expect Murray, the acknowledged master of the breeze, to be so effective. A 10 to 15mph wind is forecast, uncomfortable but not disruptive.
Djokovic danced around the suggestion that he took an unsportsmanlike break near the end of the New York final, which went on for four hours and 54 minutes. "If you need a medical timeout, you need a medical timeout. We pushed each other to the limit physically, mentally, emotionally, and that's why we have a great rivalry at this moment."
And if he doesn't win? While still the scariest beast in the jungle, Djokovic has become more philosophical about defeat. "Maybe a few years ago it would take me much longer than it does now [to cope with losing]. All these years playing at the top level and playing many matches that were deciding titles, the grand slam events, that necessary experience helped me to overcome any kind of loss or disappointment.
"I feel it after the match, there's no question about it. There's a certain, let's say, regret for not being able to come out as a winner, but it goes away after few days only."
Murray has prepared by sleeping "as late as possible", sticking to his trusted diet of "fruit, yoghurt, cereal at breakfast, chicken and rice for lunch, then again about an hour and a half before the match, plus ice baths, massage, stretching" – and painkillers before bed. "Right now, I feel fine. But when you wake up in the morning you're sore, that's why you have the guys around you to make you feel as good as possible."
In the Murray camp are Boris Becker (who thinks he is "a changed man" since beating Federer in the Olympics final), Shane Warne (who backed Federer in the semi-final, and went home with a ball after catching one of his Swiss friend's mis-hits) and Andre Agassi.
A week ago, Mats Wilander, who won seven slam titles, tipped Djokovic if he met Murray in the final. Sitting alongside him for part of Friday night's semi-final, I got the impression that view is weakening.
Djokovic attracts the support of bookmakers and a majority of tennis writers here, even some of the British travelling contingent. He also has Federer in his corner; that may not be just because it makes tennis sense; if Murray wins, he could displace Federer as No2 in the world next month.
That is as good an incentive as Murray could wish for. "The last few months have been the best of my career," he said. "Provided I can recover and get myself as healthy as possible, it should be a good match."
There have been more rousing battle cries, but few more honest. He is hurting, probably more than Djokovic, but Murray is ready for war and I am sticking with him to win it.
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image: © carine06