Under the unforgiving sun of Key Biscayne emerged the dominant tennis narrative of 2011, which would reach its climax five months later under the unforgiving spotlight of New York.  Until that stage of the nascent season, Novak Djokovic had won all three tournaments that he had played while compiling a 4-0 record against leading rivals Federer and Nadal.  But these opening salvoes mirrored the beginning of his breakthrough season in 2008, when he had swept the Australian Open and the year’s first Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells.  This year as well, he had raced to the Melbourne title while dropping only one set and stifling Federer in the semifinals.  The question still remained, then:  could Djokovic sustain a level of brilliance that he had displayed only sporadically before?

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates with the trophy after he defeated Rafael Nadal of Spain during the men's singles championship at the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 3, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

As he dueled with the man whom he soon would surpass, the Serb recovered courageously from a lackluster first set and battled deep into the third set.  At 5-6 in the decider, though, a crackling backhand from Nadal moved the Spaniard within two points of a victory that would have halted Djokovic’s momentum.  At the Olympics in 2008, at Madrid in 2009, and at other battlegrounds throughout the world, he had crumbled against Nadal in such crucial junctures and contributed to his own demise.  A similar anticlimax beckoned again, but Djokovic denied it.  A series of penetrating first serves and an impressively composed tiebreak later, he had won an epic battle from a player who had earned his reputation in winning epic battles.  More importantly, he had set the tone for the Year of Nole, a season to rival any before, by finally finding a way to sustain both his fitness and his willpower.  When his last forehand thudded through the court, he had conquered one of the most challenging tasks in tennis by claiming the Indian Wells-Miami double.  And the murmurs of his frailties, physical and mental, swiftly subsided.

After the season shifts from hard courts to clay, tennis audiences have grown accustomed to the abrupt power shift caused by Nadal’s mastery of the surface.  No matter how his spring hard-court season had unfolded, Rafa always had found a way to reassert himself after Miami.  Another Monte Carlo title seemed to signal this familiar storyline, as did a semifinal victory over Federer in Madrid.  Meanwhile, Djokovic had plodded laboriously through his draw, suggesting that his hard-court exertions had exacted a toll.  When they reprised their magnificent 2009 meeting in Madrid, one expected Nadal’s clay winning streak to trump the Serb’s 2011 winning streak.  The unremarkable final that followed demonstrated ominously that Djokovic could translate his momentum from continent to continent and surface to surface, although it soon was overshadowed by a more impressive achievement.  On the slow, sticky clay of Rome, he preserved his perfect season by the narrowest of margins in a three-hour semifinal against Murray, a match when the effort seemed to outstrip the reward.  (In earlier years, he almost surely would have let it slip away and turned his thoughts towards Paris.)  A fourth final with Nadal loomed less than 24 hours later, causing observers to wonder how Djokovic could shorten enough points and strike enough winners on this surface to snatch a victory before fatigue descended upon him.  But he didn’t shorten points recklessly, nor did he unleash a startling barrage of winners.  Instead, the future #1 won the key points of this match by defense, willing to grind through rally after rally with an intimidating patience that ultimately broke down Nadal as much as his backhand.

Just as the “when” started to fade from the question of “when will Djokovic lose,” the once-infallible Federer reminded the Serb of his own fallibility at Roland Garros.  In less than a year, their rivalry had shifted from distinctly favoring Federer at the 2010 US Open to equilibrium by the Australian Open to favoring Djokovic at the second major of 2011.  The Swiss star’s spectacularly sprung ambush thus surprised more than it perhaps should have, but it surprised nonetheless.  With his first taste of adversity since 2010, the Serb stood at a crossroads between rallying himself resiliently for Wimbledon or sliding back into self-excusing complacency.  Considered least effective on grass, he could have waited for hard courts to return in the second half and allow the Federer-Nadal rivalry to dominate the European majors again.  Through much of the Wimbledon fortnight, Djokovic seemed to debate his options within himself while struggling too long with talented but overmatched opponents like Baghdatis and Tomic.  Summoning his most compelling tennis when the occasion demanded it, though, he outmaneuvered Tsonga and Nadal to accomplish a long-held ambition.  Two points from victory as he served for the title, the baseline-bound Djokovic served and volleyed.  Then, on match point, he plowed towards the net again.  Against an opponent renowned for exceptional passing shots, the new #1 trusted the weakest facet of his game to win one of the most pivotal matches of his career.

Halfway through the season, Djokovic already had achieved more than he ever had in a year before.  With the #1 ranking weighing upon his shoulders for the first time, he responded by winning his first tournament of the summer in Montreal.  An otherwise uneventful week, that title surge included victories over Monfils and Tsonga during which both Frenchmen openly abandoned hope after a set or so.  As with Federer and Nadal before, the aura of a champion had started to crystallize around Djokovic, who also enjoyed the luck of a champion when net cords trickled over and desperate lobs fell neatly on the baseline during his three-set final with Fish.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia beats Rafael Nadal of Spain in the US Open men's final in New York. Djokovic won the match in four sets - making it his first win at the US Open.

The overwhelming favorite for the US Open, its top seed arrived somewhat battered from an injury in Cincinnati and must have appreciated his accommodating draw.  Although Tipsarevic mustered unexpected resistance in the quarterfinals, Djokovic arrived at yet another Slam semifinal with Federer untested by most of his opponents.  (“Untested” understates the near-triple bagel demolition of Carlos Berlocq during one of the shortest night sessions in Arthur Ashe history.)  That lack of competition seemed to sting the Serb early in his meeting with the player who had defeated him at three of the past four US Opens.  As he did at Roland Garros, Djokovic trailed an inspired Federer by two sets and looked flustered by the shot-making display across the net.  In the fifth set, he then looked doomed again after a wretched service game allowed Federer to serve for the match.  At that moment, of course, he unleashed the “shot heard round the world”—an impudent, perfectly placed return winner off a first serve.  But that single shot did not propel his comeback alone. When defeat drew near, Djokovic outplayed Federer at his own game, whipping forehands fiercer than Federer’s fabled weapon and seizing opportunities to finish points more aggressively.

In almost exactly the same situation a year before, Djokovic had won a five-set semifinal thriller from Federer before sputtering to a fatigue-influenced defeat against Nadal in the final.  Likely determined to avoid that script again, he swept through two sets riddled with breaks and endless service games.  Leading early in both sets, Nadal positioned himself to seize command of the second set multiple times during a nine-deuce third game, but Djokovic refused to relent and soon led by two sets and a break.  Late in the third set, he served for a straight-sets victory.  With his trademark determination, Nadal averted defeat and dominated the ensuing tiebreak, after which the top seed limped exhausted to his chair.  One of the Spaniard’s classic comebacks appeared a real possibility at that stage, especially when Djokovic labored through an arduous service game to start the fourth set.  He buckled but did not break, and the momentum had shifted for good.  Broken in a similarly arduous service game afterwards, Nadal looked resigned to the inevitable as the fourth set rushed past.  Just as he had with Federer, Djokovic outplayed Nadal at his own game by winning the majority of the protracted baseline exchanges and rarely lapsing in his suffocating court coverage as the match extended past four hours.  Only one player had defeated Federer and Nadal consecutively at a major, Del Potro at the 2009 US Open.  And Djokovic’s feat astonished even more, considering that his five-setter came in the first of those two matches rather than the second.

After this Wagnerian climax, the world #1 justifiably could have and perhaps should have ended his season to rest for 2012.  The handful of matches that he played after the US Open formed a coda with neither purpose nor meaning.  Although his fall campaign diminished his winning percentage, it did not diminish the achievements that preceded it or dent his 10-1 record against Federer and Nadal, the most impressive statistic from his season.  Now, Djokovic faces a different type of test:  defending as much as he can of the territory that he has captured.  Envisioning 2012 realistically, he recognized that it will be nearly impossible to repeat everything that he achieved in 2011.  On the other hand, he spent most of this season turning the impossible into the expected.

Next year, we will start to find out whether a season becomes an era.

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