At the end of 2011, Novak Djokovic reigned supreme. While a fatigue-plagued fall saw little of Djokovic and a lot of Roger Federer, there was no overwhelming question as to who the best player in the world was. How quickly things change.
The biggest questions coming out of 2011 were “will Djokovic be able to repeat,” “will Rafael Nadal ever stop losing to him,” and “is Roger Federer finished winning slams?” All three of these questions were answered in the first half of the year. While retaining his world number 1 ranking, Djokovic fell far short of repeating his magnificent 2011. While Nadal lost their first encounter of 2012, he went on to beat him three straight times after. And Federer extended his slam record (and even smashed the weeks at number 1 record as a nice bonus). But when 2012 started, it looked like little had changed from the previous year.
The Australian Open featured some of the best matches of the year. And Djokovic was a part of two of them. He beat Andy Murray in just under 5 hours in the semifinals before defending his title against Nadal in the longest slam final ever. So it really seemed like this was the new normal: Djokovic beating Nadal in every big final everywhere. After all, this was the third straight major final featuring the two and all three were won by Djokovic. But in hindsight, there were certainly some hints of Federer’s comeback and Murray’s rise.
Following the Australian Open, Murray avenged himself against Djokovic by handing the Serb his first loss of the year in Dubai. So going 41-0 to start the year for the second straight time was out of the equation immediately. But then Murray fell to Federer in the final. Insignificant at the time, but it turns out that this was only the beginning of the Federer-Murray show. Djokovic suffered his second loss of the year in Indian Wells, now 1/3 for title defenses. Meanwhile, Federer claimed his second straight Masters title and first in California since his best year, 2006. Not only did Federer win the title, but he beat Nadal rather handedly in a match few expected him to win.
In Miami, Federer was upset by Andy Roddick for only the third (and last) time. Meanwhile Nadal’s knee problems resurfaced and Djokovic became 2/4 in title defenses following a straight forward win over Murray in the final.
By this first portion of the year, the Big 4 each managed to feature in at least one big tournament final. Djokovic had the first slam of the year and a Masters title while Federer had Indian Wells and two smaller titles under his belt. But for the most part, there was still no question of who the number 1 was. Djokovic’s level, though not as high as in 2011, was still higher than everyone else’s. And yet looking back, we see that this parity in titles and finals made was a serious precursor. Djokovic retained his Australian Open title by grinding harder than probably anyone has ever had to grind before. And he ended up retaining his world number 1 by grinding away throughout the entire year. And while Nadal failed to win a title in the first few months, he made tremendous strides during the Australian Open final (which he really choked away).
The slams remained the Djokovic-Nadal show. But Murray and Federer were slowly nudging their way into the picture. Unfortunately, they would have to wait until after the clay season, during which the Djokovic-Nadal show took center stage for what may be the last time.
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