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.