Sunday, November 27, 2011

End of the Season

by Conroy

Roger Federer with his 70th winner's trophy
The 2011 ATP season is over [1], and it ended just like last year. Roger Federer dominated the late fall, winning his final seventeen matches, the last seven of which were against Top 10 ranked opponents (which might be a record), and capturing his record sixth ATP World Tour Finals [2] title. In the process, he demolished Rafael Nadal in his most lopsided victory against the Spaniard and further cemented his claim as the greatest player of all time.

But the end wasn’t at all what the 2011 tennis season was about. Looking back from the finish, it’s clear that the climax occurred two-and-a-half months ago in New York.

US Open Final
Arthur Ashe Stadium
Late on a Monday afternoon [3] in early September Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the world’s two best tennis players, took the court at Arthur Ashe stadium to contest the U.S. Open Final. It was a rematch of the 2010 Final, but this year Djokovic was the top seed, winning his way match-by-match through a near-perfect season. Nadal was a definite underdog. As they began their warm-up, the sinking sun already cast long shadows across the blue court and its expansive green penumbra. The capacity New York crowd of 25,000, the largest audience in tennis, buzzed in anticipation.

Djokovic had dominated the first eight months of the year. Heading into the U.S. Open Final he had remarkably won 63 of his 65 matches, nine titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and dominated Nadal, beating him in all five of their meetings (all in finals). By what seemed a minor miracle, and confirmation that he was in the midst of a historic year, he escaped near-certain defeat in the semi-finals against Roger Federer (click here to see one of the gutsiest and fearless shots you’re ever likely to witness). He looked destined to win the U.S. Open and consolidate the top ranking he had taken from Nadal at Wimbledon. For his part, Nadal was looking to reclaim some of his palpably diminished aura and end his losing streak to Djokovic. In the process claiming his second grand slam title of the year [4], and perhaps steal the number 1 ranking back by the end of the season.

Speaking as a tennis fan, the match was mesmerizing; an apotheosis of power-baseline tennis. Both men played at their peak, as good I think, as they could have played on that surface and that day in front of a huge expectant crowd and millions of television viewers. They are the two best defenders in tennis and probably the two most consistent baseline ball-strikers. Those skills resulted in point after point of long rallies, of sustained sprinting to all corners of the court, and of pure power hitting. Both men repeatedly retrieved what appeared to be sure winners from the other; points ending with each man’s legs and lungs burning. From a purely physical perspective it may have been the most brutal tennis match ever played (see some of the highlights here). By the end Djokovic was suffering from a back injury and the normally indefatigable Nadal appeared totally enervated, his body (and maybe his mind) unable to compete any longer. What else was obvious is that point-by-point Djokovic was better. It seemed that he returned every Nadal serve back at the Spainard’s feet. He won the majority of the long rallies. He won the important points.

An exhausted Djokovic after his U.S. Open win
Djokovic took the first two sets despite early leads in each by Nadal. With day fading into night and the stadium lights taking over, Nadal came back and won the long, intense, captivating third set. After the first game of the fourth set, Djokovic, who just a few minutes earlier was serving for the championship, took a medical timeout for a lower back injury. For a moment it appeared that a monumental comeback was in store. But it didn’t happen, Djokovic regrouped and Nadal was spent. After a little more than four hours [5] and four unforgiving sets the Serb stood as champion. To borrow a boxing analogy, he took the best punches that Nadal could throw and returned his own with interest. He fulfilled the promise of his season-long success. He was the best.

Post U.S. Open
A tired Djokovic at the World Tour Finals
And then, after that scintillating victory, the air was let out of the balloon. Djokovic played just ten more matches, going a very average 6-4 over the remainder of the season. At least two, but maybe all four of those losses were at least partially the result of a bad back or aching right shoulder. And after his mild exit from the World Tour Finals, Djokovic admitted that he was physically and mentally drained. The season, and all his success, had taken a toll. He needed time to recuperate.  Nadal went just 8-4 after the U.S. Open (and just 2-4 over his last six matches), including very lopsided losses to Federer and Andy Murray [6].

The post-U.S. Open fall season often plays like a quiet denouement to the rest of the year. And given how meekly Djokovic and Nadal played, the two bright lights of the season through the U.S. Open, it seemed especially so this year. But there is more to be gleaned from the late season results.

The talk of the first half of the season was how mentally and physically unconquerable Djokovic looked. Not only was he winning every match, but he was wearing down his opponents, the opposite of his pre-2011 reputation for fragility. But his former delicateness returned after the U.S. Open. The battle to become the best perhaps took more out of Djokovic than was initially apparent. Similarly, Nadal has historically flagged in the second half of the season. He’s renowned for his conditioning and competitiveness and in battles of attrition – his specialty – he almost always came out on top. But all the miles he put into his legs early in the year tended to catch up with him later. That seemed evident again in 2011. In the World Tour Finals he looked slow and overmatched in his last two matches [7]. It's also hard not to think that the six losses to Djokovic, all in finals, and all in situations where he had triumphed in the past, took a toll in Nadal's confidence. I'll never doubt the Spaniard's mental fortitude, but he will have to regroup between now and the new year.

Federer sweeping past Nadal at the World Tour Finals
Contrast this to Federer, who has flourished at the end of the year. The Swiss is famous for his graceful movement, seemingly floating above the court, and fluid, easy-looking game. He doesn’t put as much stress on his body and expertly manages his schedule. At age 30 he looked far fresher than either of the much younger men ahead of him in the rankings [8]. And that leads to a larger point. Federer deeply enjoyed his long reign as the game’s top player. The pressure and expectations of that ranking appealed to him. In his case, heavy was not the head that wore the crown. Being on top (or getting there) wore out Djokovic this year. It has even seemed to get the better of Nadal, who twice after taking the top ranking (2008 and 2010) has had sub-par seasons (2009 and 2011) – for him anyway. It's hard not to conclude that Federer's love of the game and ability to stay fresh year-in and year-out are a big reason why he's been able to amass his amazing record of success. 

Who knows what the post-U.S. Open results could mean for next year. Maybe Federer can continue his form into January’s Australian Open and make another, and somewhat improbable, run at the number 1 ranking. Or maybe Djokovic and Nadal will come back in 2012 refreshed and ready for another year battling for grand slam titles. This year will be remembered for Djokovic’s overall dominance, but the last few months hint at some interesting possibilities for next season. Last year at this time I suggested that Federer’s late-season success would carry him onto further success in 2011, and by and large it didn’t. Perhaps it will be the same story next year. But no one predicted Djokovic’s break-out. Maybe something equally unpredictable is in store for 2012.

The Year of Novak
Still, late season swoon notwithstanding, Djokovic’s 2011 was a season to remember. He captivating the tennis world by winning his first 41 matches and seven tournaments, became just the sixth man in the Open Era to win three grand slams in a season, won a record five ATP Masters 1000 tournaments (the level down from the grand slams), and compiled a hard-to-believe 10-1 record against Nadal and Federer. He became the first man since 2003 other than Federer and Nadal to finish the season ranked number 1, and when he took over the top ranking after Wimbledon, he was the first man other than the pair to hold the ranking at any time since Federer ascended to the top spot at the beginning of 2004. By any measure his 2011 stands as one of the best seasons in tennis history.

The Greatest Season
When I last wrote about tennis, prior to the U.S. Open, commentators were already starting to speak about Djokovic’s season in historic terms. Now with the season complete, we can finish this comparison and try and place Djokovic’s 2011 in context. Here is a list of (arguably) the seven best seasons since 1980:

Grand Slam Titles
Overall Titles
Record vs. Top 10
John McEnroe
Pete Sampras
Roger Federer
Roger Federer
Roger Federer
Rafael Nadal
Novak Djokovic
Source: and

Over the summer some were predicting that Djokovic’s 2011 would go down as the greatest season ever. But the stats suggest that while it should be considered as one of the best seasons, it is almost certainly less impressive that John McEnroe’s 1984 or Roger Federer’s 2005 and 2006. I think in the longer term it will be Djokovic’s supplanting of Federer and Nadal at the top of the game that will be the most noteworthy result of his very noteworthy 2011.

I can’t help but observe the glut of dominant seasons since Roger Federer came to the top of the game. It would be hard to underestimate the example that his dominance from 2004 through 2007 had on the recent seasons from Nadal (2008, 2010) and Djokovic (2011).



[1] The Davis Cup Final, an ITF event, will be played in Seville, Spain next weekend. The favored Spanish team is hosting Argentina.

[2] Formerly known as the Masters Cup.

[3] For the fourth consecutive year rain had pushed the men’s final from Sunday to Monday. The U.S. Open is the only grand slam tournament that holds the semi-finals and finals on consecutive days, leaving little wiggle room to adjust for inclement weather late in the tournament. A player revolt this year might lead to the more traditional off day between the semi-finals and finals.

[4] He won his record tying sixth French open title in June.

[5] The points were long and hard, but the length of the match was also the result of the pace of play. Nadal and Djokovic must surely be the two slowest-playing players in the modern game. Compare the Final to the Djokovic-Federer five set semi-final, which took a half hour less time to play. Federer is perhaps the quickest-playing player.

[6] He will play at least one and maybe two matches in the upcoming David Cup Final. He’ll be a heavy favorite on his favored clay court surface.

[7] A terrible loss to Federer and a tired-looking third set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

[8] Nadal is 25 and Djokovic is 24.

1 comment:

  1. Roger is just brilliant and a real king of tennis as he shows to win the last 3 titles in a row and make a record of win 70 finals and played 100th final and become first man ever to win 6 year ending tournaments and he also played some very bad games this year like Us open semi final 2 match point on his own serve and he missed this chance then in French open against nadal after defeating Djokovic who is the best player of this season.