|Roger Federer with his 70th winner's trophy|
But the end wasn’t at all what the 2011 tennis season was about. Looking back from the finish, it’s clear that the climax occurred two-and-a-half months ago in New York.
US Open Final
|Arthur Ashe Stadium|
Djokovic had dominated the first eight months of the year. Heading into the U.S. Open Final he had remarkably won 63 of his 65 matches, nine titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and dominated Nadal, beating him in all five of their meetings (all in finals). By what seemed a minor miracle, and confirmation that he was in the midst of a historic year, he escaped near-certain defeat in the semi-finals against Roger Federer (click here to see one of the gutsiest and fearless shots you’re ever likely to witness). He looked destined to win the U.S. Open and consolidate the top ranking he had taken from Nadal at Wimbledon. For his part, Nadal was looking to reclaim some of his palpably diminished aura and end his losing streak to Djokovic. In the process claiming his second grand slam title of the year , and perhaps steal the number 1 ranking back by the end of the season.
Speaking as a tennis fan, the match was mesmerizing; an apotheosis of power-baseline tennis. Both men played at their peak, as good I think, as they could have played on that surface and that day in front of a huge expectant crowd and millions of television viewers. They are the two best defenders in tennis and probably the two most consistent baseline ball-strikers. Those skills resulted in point after point of long rallies, of sustained sprinting to all corners of the court, and of pure power hitting. Both men repeatedly retrieved what appeared to be sure winners from the other; points ending with each man’s legs and lungs burning. From a purely physical perspective it may have been the most brutal tennis match ever played (see some of the highlights here). By the end Djokovic was suffering from a back injury and the normally indefatigable Nadal appeared totally enervated, his body (and maybe his mind) unable to compete any longer. What else was obvious is that point-by-point Djokovic was better. It seemed that he returned every Nadal serve back at the Spainard’s feet. He won the majority of the long rallies. He won the important points.
|An exhausted Djokovic after his U.S. Open win|
Post U.S. Open
|A tired Djokovic at the World Tour Finals|
The post-U.S. Open fall season often plays like a quiet denouement to the rest of the year. And given how meekly Djokovic and Nadal played, the two bright lights of the season through the U.S. Open, it seemed especially so this year. But there is more to be gleaned from the late season results.