It is inaccurate to say Novak Djokovic “emerged” this year – he was well-established as the world’s third-best player behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Still, it makes the turnaround of 2011 no less dramatic. At the start of the year, Federer and Nadal had shared 24 of the previous 28 major titles. Now, they, along with everyone else, must figure out a way to overcome Djokovic, the sport’s new benchmark. Can Djokovic cap his remarkable year in style? Or will the chasing pack claw back some ground?
Novak Djokovic, Serbia
Djokovic clinched three of the year’s Grand Slam titles – in Melbourne, London and New York – and, having been bullied by Federer and Nadal for so long, dominated the pair with breathtaking authority.
Season highlight: His achievements were crowned by beating Nadal in the final at Wimbledon and the US Open, en route to compiling an emphatic 6-0 record against the Spaniard.
Chances: He’s been unstoppable this year, so will start as the favourite, but could run out of gas after a long, triumphant year in which he the stormed the sport’s battlements.
Rafael Nadal, Spain
On paper, it looks like Nadal has dropped off the pace but the quality of his tennis wasn’t far below the level achieved in recent years. His problem was that he ran into Djokovic in six finals and lost each time.
Season highlight: Nadal’s sixth French Open title, matching the record of the equally precocious Bjorn Borg, confirmed his status as the greatest claycourter of all time.
Chances: In with a shot, but has never produced his best tennis at the end-of-year event. Looks like he needs a rest before launching a fresh assault on Djokovic next year.
Andy Murray, Great Britain
Andy Murray’s quest for a Grand Slam title continues but it’s not like he’s been losing to duds. In 2011, he was thrashed in the final of the Australian Open by Djokovic before losing to Nadal in the semis at the three other majors.
Season highlight: Murray has finished the year with his tail up, winning three straight tournaments during the ‘Asian swing’, en route to overtaking Federer in the rankings.
Chances: His excellent late-season form must see him installed as the second-favourite behind Djokovic. A win would be a fitting reward for his persistence during a frustrating year.
Roger Federer, Switzerland
For the first year since 2002, Federer went without a major title, suggesting the jig could be up. Those who have been enthralled by Federer’s brilliant tennis will hope an Indian summer delivers a 17th Grand Slam.
Season highlight: He played superbly to end Djokovic’s 41-match streak in the semis of the French Open but, typifying his tough year, was overwhelmed by Nadal in the final.
Chances: Can’t be written off and has, in the past, been able to find something extra at the end-of-year event, lifting the trophy at five of the past eight tour finals.
David Ferrer, Spain
Regarded as the sport’s best returner of serve, Ferrer has few weapons besides, relying on doggedness and outstanding fitness to wear opponents down. At 29 years old, he is enjoying the rewards for perseverance.
Season highlight: He made the semi-finals of the Australian Open and will be a key plank in the Spanish Davis Cup team that faces Argentina in the competition’s final next month.
Chances: Slim. If more talented, more complete opponents come to play, it’s hard to imagine the Spaniard having enough firepower to go the distance.
Tomas Berdych, Czech Republic
For years, Berdych was talked up as one of the young players to watch in the men’s game. At 26, he’s begun to fulfil his potential, becoming a fixture in the top 10, but, given his talent, he remains an underachiever at the majors.
Season highlight: Berdych won his only title for the year in Beijing last month but his major triumph was holding his ground in the top 10 after a break-out year in 2010.
Chances: His power, accompanied by exceptional movement for a big man, makes him an awkward prospect, and the short format may suit him, as he won’t have time to choke.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, France
Tsonga’s powerful, all-court game and ebullient personality make him one of the most watchable players in the sport. Has the game, but perhaps not the consistency, to win a major – when it clicks, he’s the best player outside the top four.
Season highlight: He played irresistible tennis to beat Federer at Wimbledon and had three match-points against Djokovic in the semi-final. If only he could string it together.
Chances: He’s the joker in the pack. If he has his head screwed on, then he has a real chance of finishing 2011 on a high. At 26, next year could be make or break for Tsonga.
Mardy Fish, United States
You know American tennis is in a down-cycle when Fish, who turns 30 next month, is their top-ranked player. He’s a journeyman who only cracked the top 10 for the first time this year. He seems to be enjoying the ride. Good luck to him.
Season highlight: Apart from his surprising surge up the rankings, Fish produced his best result at Wimbledon and recorded wins against Nadal, Berdych and Ferrer.
Chances: He starts as a rank outsider but must know he’ll probably only get one shot at playing this kind of tournament, so should be willing to have a real crack.