It was a run that even his most ardent supporters could not have anticipated when he lost to Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Finals at The O2 almost 12 months agoâ€”a run that ended 46 matches laterâ€”again to Federerâ€”at Roland Garros itself.
The only other man to qualify for the seasonâ€™s climax before the French Open was Rafael Nadal in 2009, and he quickly followed Djokovic onto this yearâ€™s startersâ€™ list by winning in Paris in June.
With these two men dominating the tourâ€”they would eventually contest six finals at two Slams and four Mastersâ€”it took until the US Open for Federer and Andy Murray to add their names. David Ferrer made it five at the Shanghai Masters and the last threeâ€”Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fishâ€”had to wait for the last qualifying tournament of the year to assert their claims.
By the time he had won the US Open, most of the safe money was on Djokovic to win a second WTF titleâ€”his first came in 2008â€”but things have taken an unexpected turn in the last two months.
The all-powerful Serb, by this stage holding 10 titles, three Grand Slams and 64 wins to just two losses, struggled with a back injury at the Davis Cup, retired and did not play again until Basel. Both there and in the Paris Masters, he was below his clinical best, eventually retiring from the latter event with shoulder inflammation.
On the bright side, Djokovic gained a fortnight to bring the problem under control. On the down side, he may be match rusty when he plays his first Round Robinâ€”which against Berdych, could spell trouble.
Also something of an unknown quantity is the top player in the second pool.
Nadal entered this season on the back of a year almost as dominant as Djokovicâ€™s 2011. He too had three Grand Slams, as well as three Masters and a final finish at the WTFs.
But this year, apart from the French Open, Nadal has only won titles where Djokovic was absent, losing to the Serb in two Slam and four Masters finals. If the losses came as no surprise against a man in near-perfect form, Nadalâ€™s introspection in the subsequent news conferences was.
And since losing his title and No1 ranking to Djokovic at Wimbledon, a few different men have stepped up to break the Nadal stranglehold: Ivan Dodig in the first round of Montreal, Mardy Fish in the quarters of Cincinnati, Florian Mayer in Shanghai.
But Nadal has taken a step back to regroup. By pulling out of the Paris Masters, he gave both body and mind time to prepare for the only major title missing from his resume: the WTF trophy.
Who, then, are the threats to these two pool leaders?
Novak Djokovic: Fifth straight year to qualify: winner 2008; semis 2010
Andy Murray: Fourth straight year to qualify: semis 2008, 2010
David Ferrer: Qualified twice: final 2007; RR 2010
Tomas Berdych: Qualified in 2010
Djokovic sounds like a man raring to go, and with 69 wins from 73 matches this year, itâ€™s not surprising. Two of those lossesâ€”together with a Davis Cup retirementâ€”have come in the last month as a result of his shoulder problem but judging by this weekâ€™s Tweet, he is rested, fit and ready. â€œArrived to London yesterday afternoonâ€¦and so far things are looking good. Already practised 2 times.â€
He will be pleased to see Federerâ€”who took him apart in the semi-finals at the O2 last year and handed him his biggest loss of 2011 at the French Openâ€”in the other pool. Looking at two who are in his pool, he will probably have few concerns. He has a 100 per cent record against Berdych on hard courts, including three matches this year, and his only hard-court loss to Ferrer came at the Masters Cup in 2007.
Djokovicâ€™s biggest worry will be the man born in the same week in the same year, his good mate Murray. For the Scot has put in his best run of the year since the US Open Series, winning 26 of his last 28 matches and three straight titles in the Far East.
Murray is second only to Federer in his indoor record, almost beat Nadal in the semi-finals at the O2 last year, came close to beating Djokovic in the Rome Masters and was leading the Serb when his opponent had to retire in the Cincinnati final.
Murray relishes the prospect of the home crowd and comes into the WTFs looking and sounding more confident and relaxed than ever before. There has been just one cloud to mar his recent record and that was a defeat by Berdych last week in Paris in three long and high-quality sets.
The Czech also has a win over Tsonga and Federer this autumn and, rather like Tsonga in the other pool, he could be a dangerous third man should either Djokovic or Murray fall short. Since Wimbledon 2010, however, he has yet to prove that he can string together several wins over top-five players.
That leaves Ferrer, who will leave blood, sweat and tears on the court in his effort to find better results than last year: He lost all three Round Robins. However, he suffered straight losses to Murray in Tokyo and Shanghai and at the Australian Open.
Ferrer has not played Berdych this yearâ€”though he has a winning head-to-head against himâ€”but is playing more aggressively than at any time in his career. If he is ever to make the breakthrough, it will be now. But it is hard to see him succeeding against Djokovic and Murray.
Semi-finalists: Djokovic and Murray
Rafael Nadal: Seventh straight year to qualify: final 2010; semis 2006, 2007; injured 2008
Roger Federer: 10th straight year to qualify: winner 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010; final 2005; semis 2002, 2009
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Qualified in 2008
Mardy Fish: Never qualified
Remarkably, Nadal has just one indoor title to his name and that came back in 2005 when Madrid was played indoors. Otherwise, his best result on the indoor stuff came in the final of the WTFs last year when he lost to the man with the best indoor record of the eight contenders, Federer.
The Swiss man has also beaten him in both meetings at the Masters Cup, and the fact that Nadal has beaten his oldest rival three times this year, twic on clay, will probably count for little. Nadal may be less than thrilled, therefore, that for the first time in their Championship history, they are in the same pool.
He may also be a little concerned that the other two in his pool scored wins over him on fast surfaces in the second half of 2011: Tsonga beat him on Queenâ€™s grass (though has since lost on clay) and Fish beat him in Cincinnati and also gave him a run for his money over four sets at Wimbledon.
Itâ€™s a tough poolâ€”assuming the O2 courts are as quick as last yearâ€”comprising three attacking players. However, Nadal comes in fresh, well prepared and with possibly the biggest incentive of the eight: to win the most significant title missing from his CV. Add to that the confidence of knowing he beat Djokovic, Murray and Berdych last yearâ€”and cannot face his 2011 nemesis at the Round Robin stageâ€”and he should reach the semi-finals.
Defending champion Federer has incentives of his own, aside from a record-breaking sixth WTF title. This is his first year without a Slam and his first year-end outside the top three since 2002. He will hope to reassert himself over his rivals before the Australian Open.
Federer has found great form through the indoor season and brings a 12-match, two-title winning streak into London, where he will meet Tsonga for an extraordinary seventh time this year.
Tsonga was the first player to come from two sets down to beat Federer in a Slam at Wimbledon, and he went on to beat him again in Montreal. Federer has since replied with wins at the US Open and, more significantly, in the final of the indoor Paris Masters a few days ago.
There is no doubt that Tsonga is on a great fun of form, apparently flourishing without the ties of a coach or the burden of injury. He has won two indoor titles this autumn in Metz and Vienna and is back to an all-time high of No6 in the rankings. Although Federer will be the favourite to advance, Tsonga is a strong outside chance.
After Federer versus Nadal, the best match of the group may come from Tsonga against the fourth qualifier, Fish. They fought for three-and-three-quarter hours and five sets at the US Open in their first ever meeting.
Tsonga triumphed and, with Fish picking up a hamstring injury that forced him to retire from Basel and Paris, the American may not even make it through all his matches. But if he stays fit, the man who turns 30 in a fortnightâ€™s time says he feels â€œzero pressure.â€ He looks forward to â€œjust staying in the momentâ€ as he fulfils his yearâ€™s ambition to play in the worldâ€™s biggest indoor tournament.
Semi-finalists: Nadal and Federer
The title: In a competition such as this, where two Round Robin wins will not necessarily earn a semi-final place, and where a couple of the participants are nursing niggling injuries, there are no guarantees. Even if the top four do survive, the semi-final pairings will not be finalised until the conclusion of the Round Robins. Federer summed it up quite simply: â€œEverybody can beat everybody.â€
Doubles pools: The worldâ€™s top two doubles pairings, Bob and Mike Bryan and Michael Llodra and Nenad Zimonjic, lead Groups A and B. The Bryan brothers won the season finale in 2003, 2004 and 2009.
Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan
Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes
Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau
Jurgen Melzer and Philipp Petzschner
Michael Llodra and Nenad Zimonjic
Daniel Nestor and Max Mirnyi
Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi
Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge