In The Tramlines is beginning a new end-of-the-year series. This will feature the best tournament, best match, best player, biggest upset, and much more for both the ATP and the WTA. This series continues with the best male player in 2011.
For the past few years, the men's game was ruled by two men, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Since, 2004, an astonishing 6 years have gone by and no one not named Federer or Nadal was the number one player. Going into 2010, it looked as if there was no reason for that to change. Nadal had just won three majors the year before, and Federer was still going strong. Novak Djokovic, for his part, had been a solid number three or number four player for the past three years. He was solid, would go deep into tournaments, give Federer or Nadal a good match, but then acquiese to the powers that be. He also had a nice penchant for retiring from matches. He did have one major to his name, the 2008 Australian Open, but he never was able to follow up on that victory, until 2011. Click "Read More" to see how Novak Djokovic went from being the opening act to the main event in every tournament he was entered in.
One of the best things about tennis, and what really drew me to the sport, was how quickly and unexpectedly the script can switch. Rafael Nadal had one of the best seasons in recent memory, reminescent of Federer's heyday in 2006 and 2007, winning three majors and looking unstoppable on everything but indoor hard courts. Then the 2011 Australian Open came around. For the most part the tournament went according to plan. Then, in the quarterfinals, David Ferrer defeated Rafael Nadal in straight sets (see our upcoming Upset of the Year Award) and in the semifinals, Novak Djokovic blitzed Federer in straight sets, going on to defeat Andy Murray in the finals. This was cause for great celebration, but it at first was met with suspicion. He didn't defeat Nadal, who up to that point had his number in the majors, and while the Federer win was noteworthy, many viewed it as a hangover from New York, where Djokovic beat Federer as well.
Then the tennis world moved to North America. There observers began to wonder if perhaps this was a different Novak Djokovic from years past. He won both of the Masters 1000 events, defeating Nadal in both finals after going down a set in both. Wait until clay, the skeptics said. Clay was where Nadal had made his start and where he still was clearly the best player in the world. Djokovic walked into Nadal's home Masters 1000 in Madrid, and defeated Nadal in the final in straight sets. It was all the more remarkable when, one week later, he went to Rome and did the exact same thing to Nadal. By this point, he was 4-0 against Nadal and 2-0 against Federer. He was also at that point riding a 41 match winning streak, an absurd winning streak given the quality of competition he was facing.
After a bitter loss to Roger Federer in the 2011 French Open Semifinals, Novak Djokovic went into Wimbledon facing many questions, the chief one being how he would respond to his first loss of the year. He ran through the tournament, and it culminated in a thorough dismantling of the defending champion Rafael Nadal. To follow it up, he won the Masters 1000 event in Montreal, then he reached the final in Cincinatti before being forced to retire to Andy Murray because of an injury. Again, was the old Djokovic, the one injury-prone, back? He answered that question again in New York, with two of the best wins of his career first coming back from two sets to love down against Federer in the semifinals (see our future match of the year post) and then defeating Nadal in the final, a reversal of 2010.
Just as it looked as if Djokovic had truly left the injury bug behind him, the script switched again. In his final three tournaments of the year and the Davis Cup semifinal, he lost to Juan Martin del Potro in Davis Cup after he collpased to the ground due to injury, lost to Kei Nishikori due to another injury, had to withdraw before his match to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Paris Masters, and lost twice in the ATP World Tour Finals, to Janko Tipsarevic and David Ferrer.
Regardless, he finished the year 70-6, but the most telling stat was his record against two of the consensus greatest players of all time, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. He finished the year 10-1 against them, and was 4-0 against Nadal in tournament finals. With an over .900 winning percentage and three slams, it was an easy choice. Novak Djokovic was the ATP Player of the year.