It’s a year in which much has been written of age and of records, about powers reaching their peak and powers waning.
It’s a year in which the top four rankings all saw new names, in which old hands made breakthroughs and in which former top-10-ers returned with a new spring in their step.
Since the final of the World Tour Finals (WTFs) last year between the two men, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who had dominated men’s tennis for more than half a dozen years, both had slipped behind a new champion: Novak Djokovic. Federer even slipped behind a British man ready, it seemed, to convert his success of the autumn into major silverware—Andy Murray.
But come the last day of the last tournament of 2011—the contest between the year’s best eight—the top three were gone, beaten by exhaustion, injury and the tennis of older men.
Top dog Djokovic, the man he knocked into second place in the rankings, Nadal and the man who had risen to No. 3 with three back-to-back titles in the Asian swing—Murray—all fell by the wayside, ashen and weary.
One of the oldest participants—Mardy Fish turns 30 next week—entered the top 10 and the WTFs for the first time. He took both Federer and Nadal to three sets, but had come to London with injury and bowed out at the Round Robin stage.
Serbia’s No. 2 player, Janko Tipsarevic, maturing to a career-high ranking of No. 9 at the age of 27, rose to the occasion in two tight contests: He held a match point in his final set tie-breaker against Tomas Berdych before losing in three, but then beat fellow Serb Djokovic for the first time in his career.
David Ferrer was the oldest man in his group—he too turns 30 in a few months—and finished 2011 higher than he’d been in more than three years, at No. 5. In the semifinals, he lost to his nemesis, Federer, and admitted afterwards that he was so tired he just wanted to stop—but he still has a Davis Cup final to play.
The other semi brought together Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nos. 6 and 7: close in age, in titles and in style of game. Berdych was the one to leave.
It was down, then, to the two. Tsonga faced the oldest man in the event who was also the only unbeaten man in the event: Federer.
Remarkably, it was their eighth meeting of the year and their third in a fortnight: three straight Sundays from the Paris Masters final, through London’s first Round Robin and on to the WTF final itself.
With two titles apiece since the U.S. Open and both looking fit, healthy and confident, few were prepared to nominate a winner, and it did indeed turn into a thriller, with Tsonga coming back from a set and a break down to level the match in a second set tie-breaker.
Visions of a Wimbledon-style upset suddenly reared their head, but with appropriate Swiss timing, Federer upped a gear to drop just three points on serve in the final set and took his 70th title in his 100th final for a record-breaking sixth year-end trophy.
After three back-to-back titles and a 17-0 unbeaten run, the oldest man ever to win the WTFs afterwards pointed out: “For me, it was the strongest finish I’ve ever had in my career.”
It sounded like a metaphorical gauntlet being thrown down to his rivals, and if there was any doubt about his intentions for 2012, they were soon removed.
Next year, he expects to visit London three times as the Olympics joins Wimbledon and the WTFs in the London calendar: “At this point, I’m extremely tired, but this is going to be a very important place to play good tennis…Clearly I don’t want to miss it and I hope to be healthy when the Olympics do come around.”
So Federer ends the year back at No. 3 in the ATP rankings and top of the Power Rankings. There are some big names missing—the likes of a sick Robin Soderling, a still-climbing Juan Martin Del Potro and the injured Fish—and some young guns ready to break through—Milos Raonic, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Bernard Tomic among them.
But these are the men who will take the most momentum into early 2012 and the Australian Open.
The power rankings list the in-form players based on recent results. The season-long series is authored by Marianne Bevis, JA Allen and Feng Rong, whose formula informs the rankings.
Check out more pictures, quotes and moments gathered from players at the O2 by the author.
10. Juan Monaco, Argentina
Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 26
Last Four Tournaments: Paris [Quarterfinal]; Valencia [Final]; Shanghai [R64]; Tokyo [R32]
Power Ranking Points: 136
For a man who has not won a title since he took three of them in 2007 and who has never reached a final on any surface but clay, the nimble Argentine had an unexpectedly strong end to his season.
He reached his first final in almost two years at the Valencia 500, beating three home favorites in the process—Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Juan-Carlos Ferrero—and went on to score wins over Gilles Simon and Fish in Paris before falling to Federer for the third time this year.
He has been practising in Seville with fellow Davis Cup teammates David Nalbandian and Del Potro, neither of whom has played for over a month.
So Monaco will have a key role in a repeat of their fateful 2008 final against Spain: He has some end-of-year form and he is the most at home on clay.
But against Ferrer and Nadal? It seems unlikely that will be enough.
9. John Isner, U.S.A.
Last Power Ranking: 7; ATP Ranking: 18
Last Four Tournaments: Paris [Semifinals]; Valencia [R32]; Beijing [R32]; U.S.Open [Quarterfinals]
Power Ranking Points: 150
In a year that started poorly for the American, things clicked into place nicely once he hit the hard courts in July, winning his 100th match and his second ATP title at Newport.
He went on to reach the Atlanta final and Washington semis before winning another title in Winston-Salem.
Perhaps his most promising result, however, was saved for Paris, where he reached not just his first Masters quarterfinal, but his first semifinal, too, beating fourth seed Ferrer on the way and taking Tsonga to three very tight sets.
He finds himself back in the top 20 a year after making his first breakthrough and now takes a career high onto the hard courts of Australia. It’s been a steady slow burn for the tall American, but he is one to watch—and fear—come the fast courts of spring.
8. Andy Murray, United Kingdom
Last Power Ranking: 3; ATP Ranking: 4
Last Four Tournaments: World Tour Finals [RR]; Paris [Quarterfinals]; Shanghai [Winner]; Tokyo [Winner]
Power Ranking Points: 265
There were high hopes for Murray at his home indoor tournament. His record in 2011 was second only to Federer’s on indoor courts, he beat Nadal in the semifinals at the O2 last year, came close to beating Djokovic in the Rome Masters and was leading the Serb when his opponent had to retire in the Cincinnati final.
Since the U.S.Open, the Scot had enjoyed his best run of the year, winning three straight titles in the Far East and 26 of his last 28 matches.
But the disappointment was not long in coming. After an unexpected loss to Ferrer in his opening match, during which he took a medical time-out, Murray revealed that he had been carrying a groin injury ever since returning from the Paris Masters a week before. Alarm bells rang when he concluded: “If it wasn’t a slam or this event, I wouldn’t have played.”
Sure enough, in a hastily-called press conference the next day, he announced his withdrawal.
However, he remained confident about his prospects for going one better in the Australian Open than his runner-up place last year. He also admitted that he needed to plan his schedule more carefully—interesting coming from one of the most vociferous critics of the calendar in recent months.
“If you look at the other guys that played loads of matches this year, you know, Roger and Novak both took a large break after the U.S. Open. Rafa took one after Asia. Maybe me trying to get ready for Basel was too soon. That’s something I probably need to learn from.”
There is, however, no doubting the improved form and confidence of Murray since the summer and, fitness permitting, he is shaping up to make a breakthrough in 2012.
7. Janko Tipsarevic, Serbia
Last Power Ranking: 6; ATP Ranking: 9
Last Four Tournaments: World Tour Finals [RR]; Paris [R16]; Basel [R32]; St Petersburg [Final]
Power Ranking Points: 302
Tipsarevic qualified for his maiden WTFs as first reserve after reaching a career-high ranking of No. 9 in the last month of the year. He began 2011 at 49 in the world, reached five finals and won two indoor events in Moscow and Kuala Lumpur during the autumn.
This late indoor surge took him to London, where he spent each day playing Djokovic in practice. But once Murray withdrew, the lesser-known Serb was pushed into the limelight and into the same pool as his compatriot.
Few thought his impact would be significant, but he has an impressive fighting spirit. He was quick to point out that while all three of the top men—Djokovic, Nadal and Murray—talked of exhaustion at the end of a long season, he was second only to Nadal in the number of matches played, and nothing was going to dim his desire to prove his worth in their company.
First, he came within a match point of beating Berdych, but lost his chance of qualification with one missed volley. However, the full extent of the Tipsarevic role did not become clear until he threw himself into his match against Djokovic and, in overcoming a one-set deficit to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, he became the first alternate to join the year-end tournament at the midway stage and win a match since 2005.
So his contribution in London may have been short, but his impact was significant—and his press conferences were the most considered, intelligent and witty around.
He certainly aims to stay with the top eight through 2012: “I feel that next year is going to be even tougher than this…I am aware that I need to improve and play even better.” But he also acknowledged that his friend was not at his best.
And to beat Djokovic again—or any of the top four—will be a big ask for Serbia’s No. 2.
6. Rafael Nadal, Spain
Last Power Ranking: 2; ATP Ranking: 2
Last Four Tournaments: World Tour Finals [RR]; Shanghai [R16]; Tokyo [Final]; U.S. Open [Final]
Power Ranking Points: 350
Seven times, he has qualified for the year-end championships—every year since 2005—and this was the fifth time he had played, but still the biggest title missing from the bulging trophy room of Nadal remained elusive.
The Spaniard went into his last Round Robin match holding a win over Fish and a loss to Federer, and while Nadal’s loss to Federer may not have been a surprise—he lost to his rival in the finals last year and in the semi-finals on two previous occasions—the style of Federer’s win was the buzz of the week. The 6-3, 6-0 one-hour master-class left the crowd, and Nadal, nonplussed.
Nadal’s final opponent, Tsonga, was in the same qualifying position, which gave extra drama to their two-and-three-quarter hour match. The reward for the winner was a place in the semifinals, and it went to Tsonga.
Nadal cut a subdued and introspective figure at his subsequent press conference:
“This was a tough year for me, no? I think I was positive one moment, but at the same time, there were hard moments…What I have to do is try to arrive at my best, to be calm with myself. That’s what I feel I didn’t do today and I need to for next year.”
Of course, watching a new rival take over your mantle, including the No. 1 ranking, is a bitter pill to swallow, especially after a 2010 season that was almost as dominant as Djokovic’s 2011.
But while Nadal’s year since New York has wound down—and a handful of different men such as Ivan Dodig in Montreal, Fish in Cincinnati and Florian Mayer in Shanghai subsequently scored wins over him—he nevertheless shone in his two Davis Cup matches and reached the final in Tokyo. And lest he forget, Djokovic has had a similar falling off since New York.
Success in the Davis Cup final should inject some much-needed self-belief into Nadal’s head. That, and some rest and recuperation, will surely see him return with a greater desire to win than ever, and his success in doing so will be one of 2012’s most eagerly watched story lines.
5. Novak Djokovic, Serbia
Last Power Ranking: 1; ATP Ranking: 1
Last Four Tournaments: World Tour Finals [RR]; Paris [Quarterfinals]; Basel [Semifinals]; U.S. Open [Winner]
Power Ranking Points: 472
By the time Djokovic had won the U.S. Open, most of the safe money was on the Serb to win a second WTF title—his first came in 2008—but things took an unexpected turn in subsequent months.
The winner of 10 titles, three of them Grand Slams, Djokovic struggled with a back injury at the Davis Cup, retired and did not play again until Basel. Both there and in the Paris Masters, he was below his clinical best, eventually retiring from the latter event with shoulder inflammation.
Djokovic gained a fortnight to bring the problem under control, and he did. However, he showed growing signs of physical and mental weariness in his Round Robin matches.
He squeezed out a victory over Berdych in a final set tie-break after facing a match point, but then looked drained and sluggish in losing to Ferrer with just four games alongside his name.
Against his Davis Cup colleague and practice partner, Tipsarevic, who was parachuted into the group after Murray’s withdrawal, Djokovic had an unbeaten record, but his friend is one of the most improved players on the tour this year. A pale and drawn Djokovic won the first set but went down in three, and finally—somewhat relieved—left London when Berdych sealed the semifinal place in his stead.
Djokovic looks ready for a long rest before beginning the defence of his Australian title—and he is now enjoying the sun of the Maldives with that same mate, Tipsarevic.
But make no mistake: With a 4,000-point lead in the rankings, he will not be giving up his hard-earned No. 1 crown any time soon. He may not quite have ended 2011 with the best ever win-loss record, but he remains the man to beat.
4. Tomas Berdych, Czech Republic
Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 7
Last Four Tournaments: World Tour Finals [Semifinals]; Paris [Semifinals]; Basel [R32]; Shanghai [R16]
Power Ranking Points: 533
Berdych became the Harry Houdini of the WTFs. Much as last year, he qualified with a late run, only sealing his place at the final event of the year in Paris.
The big Czech then went to three sets in each Round Robin match. Against Djokovic in his opener, he failed to convert match point in the final set tie-breaker and lost. In a déjà vu moment against his second opponent, Tipsarevic, he saved a match point in the final set tiebreaker to seal his first win. Finally, he beat Ferrer from a set down to steal the top spot in his pool.
His semifinal against Tsonga had all the makings of a blockbuster: two big men who hit big, serve big and were growing in self-belief with each match. They had met just weeks before in the semis of Beijing, a three-setter that eventually went the Czech’s way.
This time, Berdych lost and afterwards explained that he had started with day with a fever. But the world No. 7 really impressed, not only for his willingness to attack against every opponent—his offensive serve-and-volley tactics won huge support during the tournament—but for his mental fortitude, not always one of his strengths in the past.
He should leave London with the huge confidence, and if he can continue to marshal his huge tennis artillery, he will be reaching more Grand Slam finals in 2012.
3. David Ferrer, Spain
Last Power Ranking: NR; ATP Ranking: 5
Last Four Tournaments: World Tour Finals [Semifinals]; Paris [Quarterfinals]; Valencia [Semifinals]; Shanghai [Final]
Power Ranking Points: 591
When Ferrer faced Berdych in his final Round Robin, his incentive, apart from points, prize money and the kudos of topping the group, was to avoid meeting Federer in the semifinals—a man who had beaten him on all 11 previous occasions.
The Spaniard, who has edged himself to his highest ranking in more than three years, can be relied upon to leave blood, sweat and tears on the court, and he was playing some of his best tennis of the year—no mean feat in a season of 73 matches, six finals and a pair of titles.
He didn’t lose a set in beating Murray and Djokovic—both men against whom he had negative head-to-heads—so against Berdych, who he had beaten in their past four meetings, twice on hard courts, Ferrer seemed to have Pool A in the palm of his hand.
It was not to be, and he was brief in his assessment of facing Federer for the 12th time: “I will try to fight a lot. I never win against Roger. I hope I can change.”
Ferrer could have done with an extra day’s rest, or even an evening start, but he got neither. Within 12 hours of rushing in and out of his Friday press conference, he was back on court practising like there was no tomorrow—and there was no tomorrow.
The hustling Ferrer came within a hair’s breadth of taking the first set, as the Swiss fought through five deuces to avoid a break at 4-5. Federer survived, but had nothing but praise for his opponent:
“He’s one of the great returners in the game. He’s got great mental toughness. He’s extremely fit…I could clearly see why David beat Murray and Djokovic here—he takes the ball really early, is able to generate great angles off his plays [and is] super consistent.”
Praise indeed. But the tired Ferrer must find one last surge in the Davis Cup final before that rest comes.
2. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, France
Last Power Ranking: 5; ATP Ranking: 6
Last Four Tournaments: World Tour Finals [Final]; Paris [Final]; Valencia [R16]; Vienna [Winner]
Power Ranking Points: 1061
If there is one man who has laid down a marker for 2012 success, it is the charismatic Tsonga, who first thrilled fans with his inspired brand of tennis at the Australian Open of 2008.
As recently as May, the Frenchman found himself outside the top 20, but he has since flourished without the ties of a coach or the burden of injury.
He won two indoor titles this autumn in Metz and Vienna and is back to an all-time high of No. 6 in the rankings.
Tsonga, owner of one of the most winning smiles in the tournament, reached the final with increasingly impressive tennis and with almost as much support as Federer. Not bad for a man who finished his first press conference—losing to Federer on the tournament’s opening day—with the self-deprecating “Everybody was for Roger, but that’s OK.”
For the third Sunday in a row, the contrasting styles of the explosive Frenchman and the silky Swiss engaged, and Tsonga had his opponent on the ropes more than once.
He fought back from match point down in the second set to level the score in a tiebreaker. It eventually took two hours and 19 minutes for Tsonga to succumb—perhaps he never stood a chance against the record books.
He put his end-of-year improvement down to mental consistency and promised now to focus on getting his speed and movement back. In truth, there did not appear to be much wrong with either, so if he does come back faster and more flexible, he will be a major threat to the top five in 2012.
1. Roger Federer, Switzerland
Last Power Ranking: 4; ATP Ranking: 3
Last Four Tournaments: World Tour Finals [Winner]; Paris [Winner]; Basel [Winner]; U.S.Open [Semifinals]
Power Ranking Points: 2,018
Federer may have had a modest year by his illustrious standards—no Grand Slam titles, No. 4 in the rankings, quarterfinal exit at Wimbledon—but come autumn, the great Swiss went on a roll.
He arrived in London on a winning streak of 12 and with back-to-back titles at Basel and the Paris Masters, where he took out two of his fellow WTF opponents Berdych and Tsonga.
Taking part in his 10th straight tour-ending climax, he hoped for a record-breaking sixth title and was at pains to emphasise how fit he felt after pacing his season with care: He opted out of the Asian swing altogether.
With wins over Tsonga and Nadal, he was the first man to qualify for the semis, the only man of the top four to do so, and completed his victory unbeaten—just as he did in 2010.
Federer admitted afterwards that he had needed the six-week break after the U.S. Open not just for physical recuperation but to examine what was going wrong at key moments: “I feel when [losing close matches] happens maybe that often, I do have to question myself that maybe I did something wrong. I think I’m mentally good right now.”
As for his ambitions for next year: “Sure to win a Grand Slam would be nice…though the other players obviously have a role to play in this!”
How Federer handles his schedule has proven key in 2011, and is perhaps the most valuable lesson that the elder statesman in the top 20 can pass on to his peers.