What's your take on 2011?
I like Pete Bodo's take on it. I wouldn't say it was the best season ever, historically, but it's pretty close.
The Perfect Year?
by Pete Bodo
In years to come, pundits and students of the game will be justified in asking, as they look back on 2011, "Was this the greatest year, ever?" A few weeks ago, that question would automatically would have been taken to mean, Did Novak Djokovic have the greatest season of any tennis pro in history? But today it has a much broader, deeper resonance.
Roger Federer won the ATP World Tour Finals yesterday, surviving Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3. (Read Steve Tignor's Racquet Reaction on the final here.) In the span of just af few weeks, he also transformed the putative Year of Novak into, if not the Year of Federer (not that he hasn't had plenty of those), the year of. . . tennis itself.
Meaning that it might have been the most exciting, unpredictable and competitive year in tennis history. And it was something for which Federer gets most of the credit, and something which he could not have pulled off without the help of three men who until just days ago were, technically speaking, his betters: Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Was this the best year in tennis history? It's a legitimate question. But in order to appreciate the argument you have to set aside your preferences and prejudices. It would take a novelist of the first rank—and one with a healthy streak of perversity—to come up with the narrative that played out in 2011. It would take someone adequately heartless and wickedly clever to so move the human pieces around on the chessboard.
The year was full of surprises of the unsurprising kind. Meaning, the "surprises" were credible—as opposed to shocking or unlikely, which would be the case if, say, Donald Young had won two majors and become No. 1. And after the surprises played out, we were left thinking: How could I have been so stupid, of course it was going to play out like this. The signs were there all along.
And like some great, sprawling, historical novel, this year produced big winners (Djokovic, Federer), aptly rewarded (or punished) minor characters (Murray, Tsonga) and gave us a lovable loser (Nadal). Much as it pains me to say it or for you to read it, this has been one tough year for Rafa. Djokovic struck an enormous blow with those two big wins over Nadal in the Madrid and Rome finals. After that, the Spaniard's admirably frank comments and analyses opened windows on his soul, and mainly revealed that it was a troubled one. But we're already getting way out in front of our story—something easily done if you pick up almost any one of the narrative threads established this year.
At the outset of 2011, it was all about Nadal, who had wrested the No. 1 ranking away from Federer and was clearly in command following year during which he had completed his career Grand Slam and boosted his Grand Slam title collection to nine. Wasn't it just 11 months ago that the buzz was about the likelihood of Nadal surpassing Federer's take of 16 major titles, and about whether or not Rafa was just plain better than Roger—as was suggested by his 14-8 edge in head-to-head meetings?
Tennis was also still mainly about the Federer-Nadal rivalry back in January. Yet by the time they met for the last time this year, in the round-robin portion of the World Tour Finals, it seemed almost like a nostalgia match. That was because nobody had anticipated that Djokovic would emerge as so formidable a force in the game, starting with his win over a Murray in the Australian Open final—a match that, at the time, had about it the whiff of battle of the also-rans. Some shrugged and said it was an interesting respite from what had become a steady diet of Nadal vs. Federer.
Would anyone have dared predict that Djokovic would end the year 10-1 against Federer and Nadal (6-0 against the latter, all in finals)? Yet even as Djokovic tore through the first half of the season, we witnessed a bit of foreshadowing: Federer ended Djokovic's 43-match win streak on the red clay of Roland Garros—a splendid achievement that was very quickly overshadowed by the inevitable loss to Nadal in the French Open final. Call it a terrific example of "misdirection."
As it turned out, to the surprise of many, that French Open final would in one critical way be wasted—Nadal was unable to use it regain his confidence (remember that despite Djokovic's nearly flawless record at that point, both men had won one major after Paris). Nadal's failure against Djokovic a few weeks later at Wimbledon cemented the winner's superiority, even as Federer's unexpected collapse there to Tsonga further diminished his own credibility as a legitimate challenger to the new, Serbian alpha dog.
When Djokovic won the U.S. Open, beating Federer and Nadal in back-to-back matches, the narrative suddenly streamlined. By joining that elite group of men who had won three majors in one year (and with that remarkable 10-1 record over the two icons), Djokovic's drive to complete the greatest year ever became the dominant story—one that lasted all of a week, or until the Serb had to be helped off the court during a Davis Cup loss to Juan Martin del Potro in Belgrade. Djokovic would not play again until the end of October. He didn't win a title after the U.S. Open, and complied a lackluster 6-4 singles record, clearly suffering from injury (back and shoulder) and general fatigue.
At the same time that Djokovic was going cold, Murray was getting hot. He went on a tear (28-3 from mid-August until he pulled out of London last week), but a groin injury ended his year prematurely. As for Nadal, well, he was unable to capitalize on the absence of Djokovic during the Asian tour, or on the No. 1's vulnerability when he did return for the last three events of the year. Nadal looked nothing like his former self from mid-year on, and any delusions that he would mount a late season charge evaporated early on at the World Tour Finals.
Enter, Federer. And it wasn't like he came in from left field. There were signs aplenty that Federer remained a force to be reckoned with. That's "signs," as in Federer ending Djokovic's winning streak at the French, and coming within one swipe of the racket—twice—before bowing in the U.S. Open semis.
All along, Federer shrugged and conceded that Djokovic had been playing great tennis, and the former No. 1 always knew and sometimes hinted that the question left hanging was, "How long can it last?" And in that regard, Federer showed admirable patience and confidence; he may not have been roughed up by Djokovic as badly as Nadal, but he was just plain cooler and smarter. His experience and maturity, at age 30, certainly helped. And it didn't hurt that Djokovic had unnerved Nadal; that, combined with Novak's assorted ills, provided realistic hope.
Federer kept his own counsel and quietly laid his plans. His hiatus from the tour after Djokovic's massive win in New York allowed Murray to leapfrog the Swiss in the rankings, an event that at the time seemed to add further impetus to the theory that Federer is slipping. But any notion that he was, like Nadal, just treading water until the end of the year was blown away when he emerged during the indoor stretch in terrific form. He won 16 consecutive matches after his loss to Djokovic in New York, and rolled into London for the World Tour Fina;s confident, dialed-in, and rested. Federer hammered Nadal, 6-3, 6-0, in their round-robin encounter. It was a fitting comment on the state of each man's game, and mind.
There was one more delicious twist in the plot of 2011: Federer had to play Tsonga in the final match of the World Tour Finals, and Tsonga is the player who had inflicted perhaps the most damage on Federer—and his reputation—this year. That was back at Wimbledon, where Tsonga recovered from a two-set deficit to stun Federer and knock him out of the quarterfinals. It looked for a while yesterday like Federer would win going away, but the year got what it deserved when Tsonga survived a match point in the second-set tie tiebreaker and extended the match to a decider.
Hats off to Novak Djokovic, the three-Slam man of 2011. Condolences to Rafael Nadal, blind-sided and seemingly still in a state of shock. Kudos to Andy Murray, for his resurrection from a dismal start to the year. But raise your glass to Roger Federer, the last man standing in 2011.