PHILADELPHIA - Novak Djokovic ascended to No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career and piled up a robust 10 titles on four continents, including his first-ever Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns. Djokovic beat former top-ranked great Rafael Nadal in the finals at the All England Club and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and became the first player to beat Rafa in consecutive major finals.
The 24-year-old Serbian star captured three of the four Grand Slam titles in '11, as he opened his historic campaign with a big win at the Australian Open -- where he was also the titlist back in 2008 -- and secured a tour-record five ATP Masters shields in one season.
Prior to this year, the ultra-talented Djokovic had only won one major championship. But things changed dramatically this season, as the Serbian slugger perhaps matured a bit, trained even harder, and of course, switched to that gluten-free diet which contributed significantly to his strength and stamina. He's now one of those guys who can play all day, like Nadal, Roger Federer and David Ferrer, to name a few.
The Belgrade native's most stunning achievement this year was his mind- boggling six victories over Nadal in six finals, including the huge wins on the grass at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The super Serb also beat the mighty Spaniard in no less than four ATP Masters event title tilts -- at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome. And two of those victories came on red clay, a surface that had simply been dominated by Nadal since the mid-2000's.
How did that happen?
I'm not sure. Maybe Djokovic is just the best player now.
In addition to the six finals wins over Nadal, Djokovic was a brilliant 4-1 against one of the other all-time greats -- Federer. His lone loss against the iconic Swiss came in the semifinals at the French Open, which prevented the Serb from appearing in his first-ever championship match at Roland Garros. It also halted Djokovic's remarkable near-record season-opening winning streak at 41 matches (John McEnroe opened his 1984 season at 42-0). Djokovic actually had an overall winning streak of 43 matches, which included a pair of wins that capped his 2010 season. (The overall record winning streak is 46, achieved by Argentine great Guillermo Vilas back in 1977.)
Djokovic, however, would avenge that Federer defeat by stunning the sublime Swiss in the semifinals in New York. It wasn't really stunning that Djokovic beat Federer in Flushing, it was just stunning how he did it.
Facing match points while trailing 5-3 in the fifth set, Djokovic staved off elimination with an improbable massive cross-court return forehand winner at 15-40 in the ninth game. The unbelievable shot shocked Federer and ultimately propelled Djokovic into his third U.S. Open finale.
Djokovic also bested Federer in an Aussie Open semi, a final in Dubai, and a semifinal at Indian Wells.
The four-time major champion Djokovic reached 11 finals in all in 2011, with his lone loss coming at the hands of world No. 4 Andy Murray at the Cincinnati Masters. The Serbian star was trailing in that particular finale when he retired due to a shoulder injury.
Djokovic whipped Murray in the Aussie Open finale back in January.
The 6-foot-3 Djokovic finished his amazing year at 70-6, with three of the losses coming over his final six matches of the season.
The athletic "Djoker" set an ATP record this year by becoming the first player to earn more than $12 million in prize money and also became only the fifth man in the Open era (since 1968) to win three majors in a calendar year. With $32.9 million earned overall, Djokovic is now fourth on the all-time money list, behind Federer ($68.8 million), Nadal ($44.06 million) and 14-time Grand Slam titlist Pete Sampras ($43.28 million).
Trivia: The first player to earn more than $1 million in one season was Bjorn Borg back in 1979.
The aforementioned Nadal may have lost his top ranking this year, but certainly was no slouch in 2011.
He joined Djokovic as one of two men who appeared in three Grand Slam finals this season (1-2) and captured his second straight and sixth overall French Open title as he joined my tennis hero, Borg, as the only man to corral six French Open titles in the Open era.
Rafa became a 10-time major champion with his big victory at Roland Garros, where he beat his long-time rival Federer in the final for a fourth time.
The 25-year-old Nadal went 69-15 this year, but settled for only three titles, including ones in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and seven runner-up finishes. Do the seven runner-up finishes mark a sign of decline for Rafa? I don't think so, considering six of the seven L's came against the rocketing Djokovic.
Note: Nadal's victory at Monte Carlo gave him a tour-record 19th Masters title.
Nadal capped his '11 campaign in the finest of fashions last week, as he led his powerful Spanish team to a third Davis Cup title in four years with a pair of singles victories, including a come-from-behind Cup-clinching one against fellow former U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro in Seville.
Note: Nadal has won his last 20 Davis Cup singles matches (rubbers) and has never lost on clay (16-0) in the prestigious international team event.
Nadal will enter 2012 at No.2 in the world, and no doubt with some Djokovic revenge on his mind.
As for the great Federer, the now 30-year-old Swiss went 64-12 and crossed the finish line with four titles and two runner-up finishes. He also reached his 100th career final and picked up career title No. 70.
Federer capped his season in style by winning his last 15 matches, which included three of his four titles for the year.
Following the heart-breaking loss against Djokovic at the U.S. Open, the Swiss legend took some time off to clear his head...and it helped.
The 23-time Grand Slam finalist returned with a title in his native Basel last month, then ran the table at the Paris Masters before closing out his 2011 campaign with five wins against four of the top-eight players on the planet at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Federer beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the round-robin portion and in the final in London, but his biggest win of the week came against Rafa in round-robin play. Federer gave Nadal the worst beating he's ever put on the Spaniard with a 6-3, 6-0 lashing at The 02 Arena. Federer was 0-3 against Nadal for the year before that lopsided London affair.
Note: Federer is now the all-time leader with six championships at the exclusive ATP Finals. He had been tied with Sampras and Ivan Lendl.
Unfortunately for Federer, he never really was in the No. 1 mix in 2011 and failed to capture a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2002. He had won at least one major title for eight straight years (as did Borg and Sampras).
Will he return to the Grand Slam winners' circle, and perhaps No. 1, in 2012?
The capable Murray reached his third career Grand Slam final at the Aussie Open, but failed to win a set there against Djokovic. A a matter of fact, Murray has never won a set in his three major finals (0-9).
The 24-year-old ended the year at No. 4 after tallying five titles, including three straight at one point in Bangkok, Tokyo and at the Shanghai Masters during the ATP's late-season Asian swing. Murray also titled at the Cincy Masters, giving him a pair of Masters shields for the year en route to a quality 56-13 record.
Murray also joined Djokovic as one of only two men to reach all four major semifinals this year.
Unfortunately for Murray, he failed once again to produce Britain's first male Grand Slam winner since Fred Perry 75 long years ago.
World No. 5 David Ferrer helped Spain to that Davis Cup championship, captured a pair of tour titles, and was a three-time runner-up in 2011 -- including trips to a pair of Masters finals in Monte Carlo and Shanghai. The 29-year-old Spanish grinder won 59 matches this year (59-19) and is simply one of the best pound-for-pound players out there.
Tsonga posted a 55-24 record and came in at No. 6 after titling in Metz and Vienna and finishing as the runner-up at four other events, including the Paris Masters and lucrative ATP Finals.
The 26-year-old Tsonga stunned Federer in five sets in the Wimbledon quarters and also upset the Swiss great in the third round at the Masters event in Montreal. But after that, the flashy Frenchman dropped four straight to Federer, including a pair of losses at the ATP Finals in which the Swiss star overcame Tsonga in the championship round. Federer and Tsonga clashed eight times in all in 2011, with the Frenchman going just 2-6.
Two other top-10 guys I want to look at are No. 8 American Mardy Fish and No. 9 Serb Janko Tipsarevic, two men who cracked the top 10 for the first time in their careers.
The Minnesota native Fish, who seriously committed to fitness in late 2009, is currently the highest-ranked American and appeared in the coveted ATP Finals for the first time in his career. The late-bloomer, who will turn 30 this week, went 43-25 and reached three finals (1-2), including a title in Atlanta and a runner-up finish to Djokovic at the Canadian Masters.
Tipsarevic, meanwhile, is a hard-working 27-year-old who finally broke through with his first-ever ATP title by winning in Kuala Lumpur this fall, and won again just three weeks later in Moscow. Prior to that, Djokovic's fellow Belgrade native was considered to be the best player on tour without a championship.
In addition to the two big wins, "Tipsy" was also a three-time 2011 runner- up, making him a respectable five-time finalist for the year.
Note: Tipsarevic was the most-active top-10er this year, appearing in 28 tournaments (while going 54-26).
The towering del Potro was still on the mend this year after returning late last season following some wrist surgery.
"Delpo" started 2011 ranked 257th in the world, but the determined 2009 U.S. Open champ charged all the way up to No. 11 by season's end. He captured a pair of titles, was a runner-up to Tsonga in Vienna, and helped Argentina reach the Davis Cup final against host Spain on his way to a 48-18 ledger.
Unfortunately for the 6-foot-6 del Potro, the 23-year-old went 0-2 in his singles rubbers last week in Seville, succumbing to Ferrer in five sets and Nadal in four with the Davis Cup on the table.
Swedish bruiser Robin Soderling opened the year at No. 5, but ended it at No. 13 after battling a wrist injury and mononucleosis the second half of the season.
Before the physical setbacks derailed Soderling this season, the 27-year-old two-time French Open runner-up had piled up four titles in as many finals and appeared well on his way to the ATP Finals. He ended his year with a splendid 38-9 record.
Andy Roddick, now the second-best American on tour, battled injuries all year long and finished outside the top 10 for the first time in 10 years.
The 29-year-old former world No. 1 and former U.S. Open champ posted a 34-16 mark, titled just once (Memphis in February), and appeared in only two finals for the year, with the loss coming in Brisbane back in January.
Is a return to the top 10 in the Nebraska native's 2012 future?
The 2011 season was yet another great one for the ATP, as its brightest stars continued to shine while some up-and-coming ones, like Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov, showed glimpses of their promise during the year.
With an ultra-tight top-10 and a talent-laden top-whatever, men's tennis appears to be in some pretty goods hands right now.
It should be yet another stellar year for the tour in 2012.
See you then.