Men's tennis 2011: Djokovic wasn't joking; Nadal nonplussed; Federer fades

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during the men's championship match against Rafael Nadal of Spain at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, Monday, Sept. 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Here’s how I thought 2011 would go in men’s tennis: Rafael Nadal would steamroll the year, with perhaps a challenge here and there from the supporting cast, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling.

The real interest for me was Roger Federer. How would the peerless superstar, once-in-a-lifetime great reconcile himself to his fading powers as he hit 30 -- that most cruel of milestones for tennis players. Could the Swiss sorcerer summon up a spark of yore and snatch one more slam? How would his famed courtesy hold up in new territory as he began losing to lesser lights? Would Fed go out as classy an act as he was during the golden years?

That storyline, however, was blasted out of the way by Djokovic, the perennial No. 3 guy (four years straight) who suddenly woke up and went on a 10-tournament tear in 2011. Djokovic’s 2011 haul included three grand slams, five ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles and a 41-match winning streak from January to June.

Along the way, Djokovic upended the No. 1 Spaniard, handing Nadal six straight losses, including two on clay and the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. The U.S. Open final, where Djokovic went down with a sore back but still managed to wrangle Nadal, was emblematic of the Serb’s unyielding determination to win in 2011.

Djokovic closes in on No 1 ranking
All hail the king: Novak Djokovic

Along with watching Federer fizzle, fans got to see Nadal flounder as he faced an opponent who matched him relentless rally for rally, pounding stroke for stroke, mental grit for grit. This was a Nadal we had never seen before, puzzled like a bull who can smell his own blood but can’t see the bullfighter’s spears in his back.

Roger Federer kisses the winners trophy
Roger Federer of Switzerland holds up and kisses the winners trophy after he defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France in their singles final tennis match at the ATP World Tour Finals, in the O2 arena in London, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Despite his late season flourish, in which Federer won three straight tournaments, including Sunday’s season-ending ATP World Tour final in London, the Fed lost ground. 2011 was the first year since 2002 that he did not win a grand slam.

But Roger kept plugging away at his true opponent, the record book. Every time Roger steps on the court these days he’s breaking this or that record, moving ahead of this or that legend.

His win at the ATP Men’s World Tour championship in London Sunday was the sixth time he captured the year-end event, moving him past Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl who each won five year-enders.

He passed the 800-wins career mark in 2011, to become the seventh player to reach the 800-win plateau behind Jimmy Connors (1,242), Ivan Lendl (1,071), Guillermo Vilas (923), John McEnroe (875), Andre Agassi (870), Federer (807) and Stefan Edberg (806).

Federer picked up up his 18th ATP World Tour Master’s title (tournaments just below a slam in importance), leaving Andre Agassi behind at 17, and only one behind all-time leader Nadal, who has 19.

Djokovic ran out of steam after the U.S. Open, and his sterling record of only two losses through September slid to a season end of 70-6. I give him points for answering the call of duty for Serbia at the Davis Cup, when he was still injured, and then soldiering on through the end of the year. It must have been tempting to take a pass after September and sit on a record of only two losses in the year. But he came out and fought anyway.

The rest of the chorus? Bad-tempered Andy Roddick slid out of the top 10 for the first time in nine years, replaced there by late-blooming American Mardy Fish. Promising Swede Robin Soderling was a big dud. 2011 cusp-of-glory player Andy Murray continued to inch towards greatness. And little big man David Ferrer of Spain sweated out a top-five finish.

As the men limp into the off season, Djokovic gets six weeks of much-needed down time; Nadal gets time to heal his own wounds, most importantly the dagger thrust into his confidence. And Federer glides in on a 17-match winning streak.

2012: Djokovic repeat? Nadal resurgent? Federer turning back the clock? Someone else surprises?

It’s going to be a great year. And having the 2012 Olympics tennis drama will make it that much better.