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Novak Djokovic’s year to remember: 2011 tennis review

Marianne Bevis takes a look back at the 2011 men's tennis season, including Novak Djokovic's stunning year to remember

Marianne Bevis
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Novak Djokovic won every grand slam but Roland Garros in 2011Photo: Marianne Bevis

novak djokovic

The tennis year is done at last. And for those who played into December, through the ATP World Tour Finals and on to the Davis Cup final, it must have seemed as though the holiday would never come. Take a bow, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer.

Some have headed home, some to coral islands, some to unknown hideaways in search of rest and recuperation before the training begins for a still tougher year ahead.

2012 has the Olympics shoehorned into its centre and a fortnight shaved off the end: The calendar will be even more jam-packed than this year’s.

Not long then to celebrate the performances and matches that have made 2011 so memorable and to search for clues to those who may make waves in 2012.

The review will look at the pick of 2011’s women, make a selection of matches of the year, and conclude with some predictions of those who will shine in 2012. First, though, some of the men who have stood out in 2011.

It has been the year of the Serb. Novak Djokovic dominated the men’s tour from first to—well almost last, but 2011 was also a year of resurgent old masters and few exciting newcomers, too.

Player of the year: Novak Djokovic

How fitting it seemed, on the first Sunday in July, that the man from Serbia should become No1 and Wimbledon champion at the tournament he dreamed of winning as a child. It had a certain inevitability: his 48-to-1 win-loss record; two Slams and four Masters titles; victory over the reigning champion and world No1.

But that was not the end of an extraordinary season that saw Djokovic come of age, as predicted on this very site in the aftermath of Serbia’s Davis Cup win 12 months ago.

By the end of the year, weary and sore as he was during its closing stages, he had scored 70 wins to just six losses. He had 10 titles—three of them Grand Slams—and is now 4,000 points clear of Nadal in the rankings. It is a performance that became a contender for the finest ever Open season in the men’s game and bearing in mind that he achieved it against Nadal and Federer, that is almost as good as it gets.

Supremely athletic, able to defend and attack with equal facility, and blessed with a sharp tactical brain, he is currently the most complete player on the tour. How he handles the pressure of becoming the hunted rather than the hunter may determine whether he fills the remaining two gaps on his resume in 2012: the French Open and Olympic gold. But with wins over Nadal on clay in two Masters this year—and that Wimbledon title—it is entirely possible he will.

In the meantime, he can enjoy another record: the biggest annual earnings in men’s tennis, a record $12.6m (£8m).

David Ferrer

When David Ferrer assessed his career at the start of 2010, he almost decided to call it a day. He had not won a title since June 2008 and it seemed like his career was on the slide. From a high of No4, he was struggling even to stay in the top 20, and with the slump came a devastating loss of confidence.

But Ferrer has always had an unquenchable work ethic. He gave himself the year to turn things around and that’s just what he did, earning enough points to take part in the World Tour Finals (WTFs). And things got even better in 2011.

david ferrer

Working on a more all-court aggressive game, he edged up to No5, his highest ranking in more than three years, and produced some of his best form to reach the semis of the WTFs—no mean feat in a season of 73 matches, six finals and a pair of titles.

A tired Ferrer still had one last ace up his sleeve, a stunning five-setter of almost five hours against Argentina’s top man, Juan Martín del Potro in the Davis Cup. It gave Spain a 2-0 lead and weakened del Potro enough for Nadal to finish him off for the title.

Ferrer is almost 30 but is playing with as much passion, energy and success as when he was 25. Whether he can improve his game still more—which he will have to do to match his all-time high—remains to be seen. One thing’s certain: He will try.

Alex Dolgopolov

At the beginning of 2010, Dolgopolov was ranked 131 in the world, itself a rise of almost 200 places over the previous year.

At Wimbledon that year, he played what he has since described as his breakthrough match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. From two sets down, he levelled it, 7-6, 7-5, before losing the fifth set, 8-10.

Come 2011 and Dolgopolov was ready to make his next attention-grabbing run at the Australian Open, where he turned the tables on Tsonga to come back from a two-sets-to-one deficit with a storming 6-1, 6-1 finish. Then he did the same to Robin Soderling, running the Swede ragged with unexpected drops, angles and spin.

The Dolgopolov run took him into the top 30, and a return to clay during the South American “golden swing” brought still more success: a first ATP final in Brazil and a semi-final place in Acapulco. On the hard courts, he beat Tsonga again in Miami and on clay in Nice he reached the semis by taking out Ferrer.

The early summer proved less successful, not helped by treatment for pancreatitis, but Dolgopolov went on to take his first title in Umag.

Since then, consistency has not been his watchword. He let slip a nerve-shattering tie-break, 14-16, against Djokovic in the fourth round of the US Open, reached the semis in Metz and the quarters in Shanghai but could not maintain enough momentum to break the top 10 and the WTFs. But from 48 to 15 in a season proves he is ready to join the party next year.

Janko Tipsarevic

With the spotlight on Djokovic, it was easy to overlook the other men in the burgeoning tennis country of Serbia. Viktor Troicki was their Davis Cup second string during that successful 2010 campaign and he began this year just inside the top 30, reaching a career high in June at No12. His form has since slipped a little, but in his place has come the articulate, witty Tipsarevic.

Best friend of the illustrious No1, Tipsarevic played a key role in Serbia’s Davis Cup semi-final victory by beating Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek and he clearly garnered his own confidence from his country’s success.

He worked his way from outside the top 50 in January to reach five finals and he won two indoor events in Moscow and Kuala Lumpur this autumn—his first ATP titles.

It was a late-season flurry that took him to a career-high of No9 and a place as first reserve for the WTFs. Then Andy Murray withdrew and Tipsarevic found himself in the limelight.

Few thought his impact would be significant, but he came within a point of beating Berdych and then overcame a one-set deficit to beat Djokovic for the first time and deny him a semi-final place.

Can he improve still further? Now entering his 10th year as a pro, the odds may be stacked against him. But then they said the same about Fish…

Mardy Fish

Turning 30 last week, Fish enjoyed his first birthday in the top 10 as well as memories of two so-near-yet-so-far matches against the best there: three-setter losses to Roger Federer and Nadal at the WTFs.

His was already the story of 2010: a man close to retirement at the end of 2009 but choosing instead a new training regime that helped him reach the finals of four tournaments in under three months, winning two of them. He rose from 108 to 16 by the end of the year, his highest in 10 years on the pro tour.

And still Fish broke new ground this spring, making the semis in Memphis, Delray Beach and Miami and becoming the fourth oldest player to make his top10 debut.

He reached his third Grand Slam quarter-final—his first at Wimbledon—made three straight finals in North America and failed, only just, to make the quarters of the US Open after a five-set battle against Tsonga.

Fish ends the year at No8 and is making the most of every new step he takes because: “I know there’s a chance I won’t ever come back to this [WTF] event.” Though with Fish, who knows what more he will find?

Honorable mentions

Juan Martín del Potro, working his way back to the top level after missing most of 2010 with injury, rose from 485 at the start of the year to No11 at the end via two titles from three finals, and two of the most rousing Davis Cup matches of the year against Ferrer and Nadal this month.

Kei Nishikori, whose early pro career was hampered by elbow surgery in 2009, started to show his class in 2011 by reaching the finals of Houston, the semis of Delray Beach, Eastbourne, Kuala Lumpur and the Shanghai Masters, and ending a strong indoor run with the final in Basel. It took him from 98 to a career-high 25, and he’s still just 21.

Alex Bogomolov Jr won the ATP’s Most Improved Player of the Year award for his 166 to 33 career-high ranking in 2011. Along the way, he took the scalps of Murray in the Miami Masters and Tsonga in the Cincinnati Masters.

Milos Raonic was ATP Newcomer of the Year, and not surprisingly. In his first full year on the ATP tour, he won his first title in San Jose and jumped from 156 to 25 before injury forced him out of Wimbledon. Since returning to the indoor season, he has made the semis in Stockholm and finished the year at No31.

Roger Federer may have had a modest year by his standards—no Grand Slam titles, a temporary drop to No4 in the rankings and a quarter-final exit at Wimbledon—but come the autumn, he went on a roll of three back-to-back titles, an unbeaten 17-match streak, a 70th title in his 100th final and a record sixth WTF title. He also won the ATP Fans’ Favourite for the ninth straight year and the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for a seventh time.

Rafael Nadal, by any standards, has had a good year: 10 finals—three of them Slams and four Masters—with titles at the French Open and the Monte Carlo Masters. A year subdued by the all-conquering Djokovic was then lifted by outstanding Davis Cup performances, both against France in the semis—two straight-sets wins for the loss of just 10 games—and in taking the title against Argentina.

More in this series: Petra Kvitova’s golden year

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