In the year of the Olympics, they took a Grand Slam apiece, contested the gold medal and the year-end title, and topped the rankings. But as spring opened up and winter closed in, it was the same man who took centre stage.
There was no doubt, as tennis prepared for the opening showdown in Australia a little short of a year ago, that the man to beat was Djokovic. He had, after all, just put together one of the finest seasons on record—10 titles that included three Grand Slams and five Masters.
He had achieved a special double whammy at Wimbledon, taking both the title and the No1 for the first time, and he had started it all with a 41-match winning streak that missed the all-time record of John McEnroe by just one.
Djokovic ended the year with a remarkable 70-6 win-loss record, and even though he ran out of steam after winning the US Open, he came into 2012 more than 4,000 points clear of No2 Nadal and 5,500 clear of No3 Federer.
Defending such a year looked to be a still bigger task. Djokovic faced the prospect of doing it all again if he was to keep ahead of the pack.
Not since the spring of 2010 had another man broken the grip on the top four at the top of the rankings—with the exception of a few weeks at No4 by Robin Soderling who then disappeared from the scene with glandular fever. And when it came to the big events, the same four were almost unassailable.
Only once since the Australian Open in 2005 had anyone else won a Grand Slam—Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open in 2009. In 2011, the “big four” had contested all the Major finals and won all nine Masters. 2012 would be no different until the very last Masters of the year, when another name, David Ferrer, took the Paris title.
Nevertheless, 2012 did break the mould in one element. For the first time since 2003, each Grand Slam would end in the hands of a different man.
First out of the stalls, and rising to the challenge of his own remarkable 2011 with purpose, energy and huge self-belief, was Djokovic, who won the Australian Open. What’s more he did it the hard way, via the No5 seed Ferrer, No4 Murray and finally No2 Nadal.
The semi and the final have since been selected as the best two Grand Slam matches of the year, both five-setters, both dramatic to the closing stages. In the semi, Murray pulled back from 2-5 down in the fifth set but failed to convert three break points for a 6-5 lead. Instead, Djokovic held and broke to take the match, 7-5, in 4hrs 50mins.
The Serb summoned up still more to survive the longest Grand Slam final on record—5hrs 53 mins. Nadal appeared to make the decisive break in the fifth to 4-2 lead but Djokovic levelled and broke to take victory, again 7-5.
He would go on to reach the semis in his next two events, Dubai and Indian Wells, before beating Murray in straight sets to win the Miami Masters. Then he set his eyes on clay, knowing two things: He had mastered the king of the red stuff in Madrid and Rome in 2011; and if he could extend that success to Roland Garros this year, he would achieve something neither Federer nor Nadal had done—hold all four Slam titles at the same time.
But Nadal had other ideas. First came the Monte Carlo Masters, which he won for a record eighth time and, more significantly, halted the run of seven straight final losses to Djokovic. Then he took his seventh Barcelona title in eight years but, like Djokovic, could not get on with the new blue clay of Madrid. Rome was another matter: Safely on traditional terracotta, the Spaniard won a sixth Rome title, again beating Djokovic.
All eyes turned to Paris and what would be a fourth consecutive Grand Slam final between Nadal and Djokovic—and both hoping to claim a place in tennis history: Djokovic could match Rod Laver’s complete Slam, achieved 40 years before; Nadal could overtake the record held by Bjorn Borg with a seventh French trophy.
This one, a slow, intense, see-sawing drama, would take two days to decide, with rain slowing court and balls almost to a halt by the time Djokovic pulled back the vital third set. He had been a break down at the start of all three, but this one he nailed, 6-2—and before play was finally halted, he took an early break in the fourth.
But when they returned on the third Monday, Djokovic faced warmer, drier conditions that helped Nadal regain his composure and his vicious top-spin.
Sure enough, Nadal made a quick break and rubbed in his advantage with a love hold. The Serb clung on for 11 games but a double fault on match point, just short of four hours of play, saw his hopes of claiming one of tennis’s most famous records evaporate. Nadal was champion in Paris for a seventh time, his fourth title of the year—all on clay—and the 50th of his career.
Little did those who had become gripped by this 33-match-long rivalry know that Nadal would play little part in the rest of the season—indeed would play just four further matches. It all came to an abrupt halt following one of the matches of 2012.
Part two tomorrow: Federer’s summer