The 2012 tennis season commenced way back in late January at the Australian Open when Novak Djokovic won an epic five-set encounter over Rafael Nadal to solidify his undisputed No. 1 ranking. And Djokovic ended 2012 with another significant triumph as the 25-year-old Serb defeated Roger Federer on Monday night at the ATP World Championships in London, 7-6 (6), 7-5.
Federer has owned these season-ending championships, with this his eighth appearance in the finals. The indoor surface is unquestionably Federer’s best as no one else in the game can match his reflexes on the fast carpet.
And the match started in very promising form for Federer as he held serve in less than a minute. He then proceeded to break Djokovic at love, with Djokovic looking a step slow and a bit out of sort very early in the match. And then with a 3-0 lead and Djokovic serving, Federer earned a break point and with it, a chance to taking a giant lead. But Federer failed to capitalize and Djokovic held to finally get on the scoreboard.
Though he was still ahead a break, Federer knew he had let a giant opportunity pass. As has been the case for the better part of two years, a one-break lead over Djokovic isn’t a lead at all.
When Pete Sampras – the last truly great server in the sport – was in control of his serve, the creeping inferiority felt by the player on the other side of the net would increase drastically as the match went on, as it became increasingly difficult to puncture the Sampras delivery.
The same can be said for Djokovic’s return game. One just never feels comfortable with a slight lead against the man who owns the best return; indeed, a return only rivaled by Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors in the Open Era (for what it’s worth, I’d take Djokovic’s over either as his wingspan is that much greater than either Connors or Agassi, but that’s a worthy discussion for another column).
Federer is all too familiar with the frightening capability of the Djokovic return; recall the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals when Djokovic hit two massive returns on two match points down to send Federer into a state of shock. And one can look back to that Australian final against Nadal 10 months ago when Nadal held a 4-2 lead in the fifth set but wasn’t able to withstand the final assault from Djokovic’s return.
So there was a definite sense of finality early on in the match Monday when Djokovic evened the set and forced a tiebreaker. There was the subtle – yet distinct – rushing on Federer’s part to attempt to put the point away earlier and he gambled a few times too often. And though Djokovic failed to serve the set out at 6-5, he maintained his returning pressure in a close tiebreaker to notch the first set.
The second set started in similar fashion with Federer breaking Djokovic in the first game and was seemingly in control. After the two held serve in routine fashion, the match appeared destined for a third set. But serving at 5-4, 40-15 Federer again got a little tight. With Djokovic maintaining his aggressive posture on the return, Federer cracked and in an instant, Djokovic broke back. And from Federer’s countenance it was obvious he knew the match was all but over after fe again gave up a lead.
Djokovic held easily and then broke Federer with an extraordinary backhand down the line pass to claim the season-ending championships for the second time.
After watching Djokovic again display an almost arrogant disregard for nerves when behind in a match one has to wonder – has there ever been a player batter at increasing his level of play when all seems lost? There is just no counting this guy out.
It was a fitting end to an exhausting and fascinating year in the sport. A year that saw four different winners of the Slams – Djokovic in Australia, Nadal securing his seventh French Open title in Paris, Federer claiming his seventh Wimbledon title and Andy Murray finally winning his first Slam at the U.S. Open (in addition to winning the Olympic gold medal in his home country).
Yet even though the riches were spread out amongst the Big Four, the best player of the year honor has to be granted to Djokovic. While it would have been almost impossible to replicate his extraordinary 2011 campaign in which he won three Slams, Djokovic was able to sustain a stellar level of play throughout the year, as his three Slam finals appearances attest.
Of course, the big “if” of 2012 was Nadal’s injury that forced him to basically miss all the action after the French Open. Nadal had clearly reversed Djokovic’s recent dominance in their rivalry, as he likely “should have” won their Australian final after being up 4-2 in the fifth set and then went on to beat Djkovoci three consecutive times on clay, including the French title match. But aside from Nadal’s unfortunate absence, 2012 proved to be the year when some parity shoehorned its way into the proceedings.