If you follow men’s tennis, you usually belong to either of two factions: Team Federer or Camp Nadal. Well, not this 2011. This year was solely dominated by Novak Djokovic.
He won 92 percent of all matches played (70 of 76). He earned a record-breaking $12.6 million in prize money. Out of the four Grand Slam trophies, he lifted three: Wimbledon and the Opens in America and Australia. In the first half of 2011, he was unbeaten in 43 consecutive matches.
And, in the best statistic that I researched, against Rafa and Roger, he was 10-1. Against the Spaniard, he won six of six. Of R & R, Djokovic said: “They have been the two most dominant players in the world the last five years. They have won most of the majors we are playing. So sometimes it did feel a little bit frustrating when you kind of get to the latter stages of a Grand Slam. They always come up with their best tennis when it matters the most.”
What change paved the way for the 24-year-old Novak to annihilate his two rivals and emerge as No.1? His mind.
“It’s a process of learning, a process of developing and improving as a tennis player and just finding the way to mentally overcome those pressures you have,” he said. “I always believed that I had the quality to beat those two guys.”
Novak is scary because he has no fear of the top players. In the most memorable shot of the season, he was down two match points to Roger Federer at the U.S. Open and, instead of playing if safe, he drilled one forehand return-of-serve for a smashing winner. He beat the Swiss. He beat the Spaniard. He won New York.
“I had an unbelievable year,” said Novak. “Nothing can really ruin that. I will always remember this year as the best of my life.”
As to the question whether he can repeat one of the greatest years in tennis history, he says: “This year’s success gives me a reason to believe that I can win again. Why not? I think it doesn’t make any sense to be anything other than optimistic. I need to believe in my qualities and my abilities and I need to believe that I can repeat the success.” That’s the mentality of a champ.
The experts, what do they say? Bruce Jenkins of Sports Illustrated: “I can’t see him repeating such a surreal winning percentage, but it’s entirely possible that he could win three majors again.
Jon Wortheim, my favorite tennis writer, comments: “Barring injury, which, granted is no small conditional — there’s little to suggest he can’t sustain this level of excellence. His game translates to all surfaces. If one component of his game fails him, he has plenty of other weapons at his disposal. His fitness, once so shaky, has, with great abruptness, become an asset. He’s younger than the players who pose the biggest threat and, right now anyway, he is swelling with confidence.”
ANDY. Looking ahead to 2012, I’d like to see Andy Murray finally win a major. A Grand Slam runner-up three times, it’s hard to see him not winning that major trophy. The perfect place for him to triumph? Wimbledon. Then, months after, with the Olympics still to be played at Wimbledon, he repeats as the Olympic gold medalist. If his fellow Scot Rory McIlroy can do it for golf, why can’t he follow with tennis?
RAFA? While losing six of six to Novak (all in the finals, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) were painful, the medicine that erased the hurt was winning the Davis Cup for Spain a few weeks back.
ROGER. Already 30 years old, he had the best finish this year, winning three straight indoor events, including a 6-3, 6-0 embarrassment of Rafa in London. Not bad for the daddy of twins Myla Rose and Charlene Riva.