Heading into 2011, the thought was “Rafa and Roger are back”. Roger had just beaten Rafa in the finals at London and “experts” were ready to pronounce Federer fit to win Slams once again. Murray and Djokovic were expected to be the bridesmaids once again, their game not ready to topple the very best.
Only, it didn’t turn out that way. Djokovic worked out a few kinks in his game. He got his serve back to being pretty good. He became a brick wall of defense. One of Federer’s signature moves is to hit a sharp crosscourt backhand. Djokovic had a response for this, by hitting an even sharper angle back. At one point in the Australian Open semis, Federer seemed puzzled what to do. He tried playing his usual style, but couldn’t hit through Djokovic. For a few games, he tried moonballing and off-pace junk, and that worked for a while, but then he went back to hitting out as if he felt dirty playing that way.
Many years ago, Ivan Lendl solved the puzzle of Jimmy Connors. Connors’ flat style, his hard charging tactics really pressured Lendl and Connors won many of their early meetings. One day, Lendl decided to push. Slice that backhand. Give Connors no pace to work with and keep doing this over and over and over. As long as he kept the ball deep, Connors was not prepared to attack and despite being one of the steadiest flat players in the game, he would eventually cough up an error. Connors exclaimed that he would rather lose playing like a man then win playing like a woman. Lendl, clearly unaffected by this taunt, simply preferred winning.
Perhaps Federer felt this way. In any case, Djokovic had a straight set win over Federer, perhaps one of the more shocking of the year.
In the finals, Andy Murray made the finals again. Much like the year before, Murray got to the finals because of an injured Rafael Nadal. This time, Murray didn’t have to play Nadal because David Ferrer upset him in the quarterfinals. Murray had to work pretty hard to get past Ferrer, needing two tiebreaks. The bad news for Murray is that he hadn’t played Djokovic much in 2010. Djokovic was Murray’s first big win in 2008, Murray’s first really good year. Until then, Djokovic was the more dominant player having come out of nowhere in 2007 to reach the semis of the French, Wimbledon, and then reaching the finals of the US Open.
Because of this, Murray had not played this “new” Djokovic. In fact, no one really had except players that normally lose to Djokovic. He had as many problems dealing with Djokovic as Federer did. Murray gets blamed for this, but to be honest, Federer didn’t fare that much better. Murray could have kept it closer, especially a bad second set where errors caused him to lose serve twice.
Djokovic would continue to roll. He won Dubai over Federer. He won Indian Wells over Nadal (and Federer in the semis), then Miami over Nadal in the finals. He skipped Monte Carlo, as fans wondered if his great play would translate to clay. He played his home tournament in Serbia and won that. He then had a huge breakthrough. He beat Nadal in the finals of Madrid. It’s hard to overstate how important this victory was for Djokovic.
Djokovic has split matches with Nadal on hard courts. Most of his victories come on that surface. Djokovic is either the second or third best clay court player after Nadal. More than that, Djokovic plays like Nadal. He doesn’t hit with the same top. He doesn’t create as many nice angles, but he grinds like Nadal. He’s not afraid to play 20 shots to win a point and neither is Nadal.
But clay was Djokovic’s bugaboo. He had his best chance to topple Nadal in 2009 when the two played a gruelling three set match in Madrid. The two played into a third set tiebreak with Djokovic having match points. Nadal still managed to come up big in the biggest points and Djokovic went down. This defeat was devastating for both players.
Nadal would lose to Federer in the finals in straight sets, though he certainly had his chances, but more importantly, Nadal would lose at the French to Robin Soderling, his first and only loss at the French. Nadal would drop out of Wimbledon, and he would go into a funk where he did not win another title for almost a year, until he won easily at Monte Carlo in 2010 to spur on a great 2010 for Nadal.
Djokovic also suffered. He lost in the third round to Philipp Kohlschreiber, but had a reasonably good year at the end of 2009.
The 2011 Madrid victory was a breakthrough for Novak. Doubters would argue that Madrid is played on quick clay in altitude. Surely, Rafa would not to lose to Djokovic twice on clay. In Rome, Djokovic was almost eliminated by Andy Murray who had been having his best clay season ever. If Murray has a weakness, it’s clay. He’s never done that well on clay.
And much like 2010, Murray played in a total funk in 2011 after the Australian Open. He lost to Marcos Baghdatis in the opening round at Rotterdam. He lost to Donald Young in Indian Wells. He lost to Alex Bogomolov in Miami. Indian Wells and Miami are both friendlier to Murray’s game. But Murray said that he was working over his funk. And he’d have to do it on clay.
Murray reached the semis of Monte Carlo losing to Rafa. He lost a bit early in Madrid to Bellucci, who went on to the semis. Murray also made the semis of Rome.
More importantly for Murray, he reached the semis of the French Open. This was a completely improbable journey. In the third round, Murray injured a tendon in his ankle, an ankle that had never bothered him. He was given treatment, but he was clearly limping around. Michael Berrer, his opponent, had been having pretty good luck hitting drop shots on Murray but immediately stopped that tactic. Murray had himself been accused of being “mean” to Gilles Simon in Madrid. Simon had hurt his ankle too, so Murray just drop shotted all day and won easily. Murray said that’s how the game is played. It would be embarrassing to lose to a guy who was hurt because you let up.
Murray started banging his groundstrokes trying to end points quickly. The burly Berrer is not much of a mover, so he began to win game after game after game. Berrer literally handed Murray the match on a plate, though Murray, to his credit, managed to summon energy and play pure power tennis, something he does very rarely.
He got a lot of meds to get him through his remaining matches. With the day rest, Murray was able to get treatment. He got a bit lucky that his match against Troicki got a late start. It ended so late that the fifth set was played the following day. Murray got broken early in a peculiar point where a ballboy thought a Murray retrieval of a Troicki smash was going out and ran into the court to fetch it. Once he realized it was going in, he backed off. Troicki smashed the ball, but the point was replayed. Troicki was utterly shocked at this. He kept staring at the ball kid.
And the fact was, he broke Murray in that game. Murray broke back twice and won the set. Then, Murray got exceptionally lucky in the following round. The seeds that he could have met, Melzer and Almagro, lost early, so he played veteran Argentine, Juan Ignacio Chela, and had a pretty easy win. Of course, he lost to Rafa in the semis, but this was the first time that Murray had reached the semis at the French. Up to then, a quarterfinal finish in 2009 was his best result at Roland Garros. Murray would reach the semis of Wimbledon and the US Open losing to Rafa in those tournaments too.
So despite not winning any Slams for yet another year, Murray still had his best year on tour, in terms of Slam performance.
Roger Federer started 2011 with a win in Doha over Davydenko in the final. It seemed like Davydenko would return to top flight play, but he had a mediocre 2011 as he fussed with his racquet and his rank dropped to 41 by year’s end.
Roger did not expect that his next tournament win would be Basel in the latter parts of the year. It’s not that Roger was playing poorly, but that he couldn’t beat Djokovic or Nadal. He reached the finals of Dubai losing to Djokovic, the semis of Indian Wells, also losing to Djokovic, the semis of Miami, losing to Nadal. Finally, in Monte Carlo, he lost to Melzer, someone not named Djokovic or Nadal. He lost in the semis of Madrid to Nadal, but almost didn’t get out of the first round where he narrowly escaped Lopez in three tiebreak sets. Fed lost early in Rome to Gasquet.
Then Fed pulled a small miracle. He became the first player to beat Djokovic beating him in four sets at the French Open semis. He had chances in the final, including rushing out to a big lead in the first set, but was unable to close out the set, and lost in four sets.
Fed lost in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon for the second year in a row. This time, he lost to Tsonga. Experts point out that Federer had a two set to one lead, but they ignore that Federer had one break point the entire match and only one break the entire match. When you can’t make an impression on your opponent’s serve at least once a set, you’re going to be in big trouble, and so Roger was.
Fed then hit a real low point. He lost to Tsonga in Montreal then to Berdych in Cincinnati. Even so, he came within a hair’s breath of making the final of the US Open. Everyone remembers that Djokovic went for a huge return when Federer went up 40-15. However, Djokovic still had to break, and he did twice. That return so frazzled Federer and energized Djokovic, that Djokovic claimed the match and then his third Slam of 2011.
Federer and Murray then had an interesting fall. Both Federer and Djokovic wanted to take off a lot of weeks after the US Open. Djokovic tried to play Davis Cup against Argentina, but couldn’t last more than a set against del Potro. Djokovic returned in Basel and skipped the Asian tour. So did Federer. Murray grumbled about playing Bangkok, a tournament he once reached the finals of and lost to Federer. However, he did win the tournament, then won Tokyo with a superb display against Nadal. When Nadal was unable to reach the finals of Shanghai and neither Djokovic nor Federer were playing, Murray had a path to yet another Masters 1000 win.
Murray then proclaimed that he wanted to end the year as number 3, ahead of Roger Federer. This wasn’t as far-fetched as it seemed. For Federer to finish at 3, he would pretty much have to sweep Basel, Paris, and London. Federer had never won Paris, indeed, never reached the finals. Federer lost to Djokovic two years ago in Basel. Then, Murray entered as a last minute wildcard to Basel hoping to notch a win over Federer. Honestly, had Murray won pretty much any tournament (Basel) or reached the finals of Paris, he’d have taken number 3 regardless of what Federer did.
But Murray’s luck was not good. At Basel, Murray woke up at 3 AM to a buttock strain, and he felt he couldn’t compete. He waited a day and tried to practice, but that didn’t help. So Murray dropped out of Basel without playing a match. Murray did play Paris, but he picked a bad time to play Berdych who had been having a pretty good year. He had just won Beijing. While this was his first title in two and a half years, he was consistently making it deep in every tournament reaching quarterfinals and semifinals, though falling short. Just ask Federer how his ranking fared by essentially going deep every tournament.
Meanwhile Federer won Basel and won Paris. Murray still had a chance to finish at number 3. He had to do well in London or hope Federer faltered. If Federer lost in the semifinals, then Murray would still be number 3 though just barely, and that’s if Murray didn’t win a match. But Murray was victim of bad luck again. Murray overtrained some after Paris and then hurt himself. He had chances against Ferrer in his opening round robin, but lost, then withdrew. So his plans to reach number 3 faded as Federer went on a big streak and claimed number 3, perhaps something Federer really felt proud of.
Finally, Rafael Nadal seemed like he would have another pretty good year. It started a bit rocky when he got injured in Melbourne for the second time in two consecutive years. He reached the finals of Indian Wells, Miami, then won Monte Carlo and Barcelona, then reached the finals of Madrid and Rome, then won Roland Garros, reached the finals of Wimbledon. He lost early to Dodig in Montreal, then to Fish in Cincy. He reached the US Open finals and lost again to Djokovic. He lost to Murray in the Tokyo final, then early in Shanghai to Florian Mayer, then didn’t get out of the round robin at London, losing to Federer and Tsonga. In the end, he only won 3 titles, his fewest since playing the tour, and mostly because Djokovic beat him in 6 finals.
So what does this spell for 2012?
As usual, I think it’s too hard to tell. Everyone is still waiting for Murray to win his first Slam. Ivan Lendl lost his first four Slams and won his first one in a five setter at the 1984 French Open final at 24. The difference was Lendl’s power. Everyone thought with his power game and his topspin, he would eventually win a Slam. Connors was getting older. McEnroe couldn’t keep beating Lendl.
Murray, despite what everyone says, is not the kind of counterpuncher that Djokovic and Nadal are. Djokovic and Nadal are willing to play pretty long points and while Murray can do this, he prefers to play shorter points. When he plays Nadal or Djokovic or Federer, he isn’t trying to outsteady them (he used to do it to Federer when Fed was a bit unsteady in his game a few years back), he’s trying to outhit them. Murray has gone to some effort to learn how to hit harder, not to outlast Nadal or Djokovic. However, it isn’t Murray’s preferred style of play. He trots it out for Nadal, and occasionally Federer, but against everyone else, he doesn’t plan to play Fed like, even if it might speed up his wins.
But many people feel that as much as Murray has improved, he’s unable to play big often enough. He had a very good win over Nadal in Tokyo, but did he come out firing in Shanghai? Nope. Just played his usual tennis. To be fair, maybe Nadal’s style of play makes it a little easier to attack. Or maybe you know you can’t play steady ball and hope to beat Nadal. You have to outhit him. The only guy who tries to stand toe to toe with Nadal is Djokovic.
And the question is whether Murray can get past Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. In the past, you would catch major breaks in Slams like Federer did when he beat Baghdatis in the finals of the Australian Open. Murray would love to play Tipsarevic in the finals of a Slam. But with the best “big 4″ in quite some years, the semis are consistently players in the top 4 or perhaps potential top 8. In two Slams (French and US Open), the top 4 reached the semis. 3 of 4 reached the semis in the other two Slams (Wimbledon, Australian).
Let’s look at each of the top 4.
The biggest question is, can he recover? He spent 6 weeks off after the US Open with either a back or stomach issue. But his shoulder was still giving him issues. He had five losses after the US Open (Davis Cup vs. del Potro, Nishikori in Basel, withdrew in Paris, lost to Ferrer and Tipsarevic in the round-robin). In a way, he was kind of lucky not to have played any of his rivals then, and have his head-to-head a bit worse. And, in a way, he can thank Berdych for qualifying for the semis instead of him, because he would have had to play Federer and would likely have lost.
At some point, if he recovers, it seems like there’s no reason he can’t play outstanding tennis. He may have to work on how to beat players more efficiently. Nadal, at least, is used to his style of play and has figured out how to avoid injuries despite routinely playing ultra-long matches.
I assume he’ll be back, but until we see that in action, it will be a hold-your-breath kind of thing.
Nadal has to hope that Djokovic stays in his funk. Nadal was that close to winning three Slams this year too. He reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, and still had chances to win both. Had the two met after the US Open, Nadal might have been favored. But Nadal, as usual, gets into funks after the US Open. Last year, he lost to Garciz-Lopez in Bangkok and nearly lost in the semis of Tokyo to Troicki, and then lost to Melzer in Shanghai. At least, he reached the finals of London in 2010.
In 2011, Nadal skipped Bangkok where he was defending champ, lost to Murray in the finals of Tokyo, lost early to Florian Mayer in Shanghai, and didn’t get out of round robin play. But he turned it around at Davis Cup back on his beloved clay.
Nadal is going to have to work out his mental issues with Djokovic, but there is probably light at the end of the tunnel, and that is the hope that Djokovic might not play as well this year as last. If he does, it could get very interesting.
Federer had, for him, a not so great 2011. He didn’t win any Slams for the first year since 2003. He didn’t win a title from about two weeks in Janurary to early November. But he went on a streak of three titles, including the year-end championship. More or less, he did this last year too. What this says is Roger Federer likes playing indoors, and he does well when his opponents aren’t 100%. However, most tournaments are played outdoors with wind, sun, heat, and humidity, and all of those disrupt Federer’s timing given how aggressive he plays. Even so, he was the in-form player heading into the new year.
Again, I have to wait and see if he can move back up.
Murray is not getting any younger. There have been older players that won their (first) and only Slam at a late age. Thomas Muster was about 27 when he won the French Open. Andres Gomez was 30 when he won his only French title. Certainly, Murray could wait a bit longer, but he risks other players getting better. He needs to make a push to beat certain players and Djokovic had made it tougher because that’s one more player he needs to be able to beat at a big moment.
Poor Robin Soderling. He’s still suffering from mono and he will have to skip the Australian Open. He has the kind of game to stay in the top ten, but this will push his ranking down. Both Roddick and Federer suffered from this, but it seemed much shorter.
The man everyone will be looking at is Juan Martin del Potro. He’s at 11 right now, but he’s slow getting his game into top ten shape. Can he move into the top 5? Some people think he could be number 4 because of his power. However, he needs his big serve to be humming. It was a combination of his huge serve and huge forehand that made him so intimidating. I don’t think he’s there yet in 2011, but he’s getting close.