US Open 2011: The year in a nutshell

The ATP Men’s tour was never at a healthier place. The 80s- as a decade- was what defined world tennis on a whole, and the game has travelled a full circle from the heydays of Borg, McEnroe, Becker and Lendl to the current ‘back to the future’ trio of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.
The first half of the millennium (from 2001 to 2006) pretty much followed the same pattern as most other sporting worlds on this planet- that of utter and complete world domination by an individual or a team. Roger Federer, Michael Schumacher, The Australian Cricket team, Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods strengthened their grips on the most coveted ‘best of all time’ status. It was almost as if they were secretly placed on earth by a higher power in order to demonstrate to the world the very limits of their respective sporting fields. And they did do so- with a masterful flourish only previously encountered when (early) man first picked up a paintbrush.

Playing on thin ice?

The tag of ‘The greatest ever’ has been passed along callously over the last two years more than it has even been mentioned since the origin of the sport. The tag is always subject to the near future, to longitivity and consistency over a prolonged period of time. When we thought Sampras had done it, Federer came along. When we thought Federer had done it even more effectively, Rafa Nadal came along.
And now…the future is here. The year is 2011. Roger Federer, once the master of all that lived on a tennis court irrespective of its surface, is now ranked 3 in the world. Even through his dip in 2008, was he never so clearly number 3. Back then, it was a matter of time and form. It was his legacy at stake. Here, right now, it seems like there is no going up anymore. And chillingly so, the same could just be said about Rafael Nadal. The youngest man to win 10 grand slams, a cyborgian machine that could put humanoids in the near future to shame, is now vulnerable. And he is only 25.

The US Open, held at Flushing Meadows in New York over the previous fortnight, is testament to the fitness of most top players on the tour. The year is the longest for professional tennis players- and no other sport requires such individual extensive travelling and conditioning day in and day out over such a long period of time. You either love it, or don’t bother showing up. Hence, a dip in form and confidence here and there- is a must if you are a normally-functional human being. The last Grand Slam of the year is generally a story about the last men standing after a sapping year- with there invariably being the maximum injury-induced retirements in the first week of the tournament. This is the time the cream truly rises to the top, and mere mortals fade away into the distant memories of their ‘purple patch’ in February or March the same year.
The gap, as it is, between the top 3 and the rest led by Andy Murray, is quite large- and the vacuum shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon unless a ‘potentially great’ player wakes up one morning and decides to click a switch far behind in his mental-toughness part of the brain. One such player woke up last year, at around the same time, after losing the US Open final to yet another ‘best of all time’ candidate (the second in five years) Rafa Nadal. This player decided to contest the Davis Cup finals- and probably win back some pride and confidence, atleast for his country.
He won both his singles matches, and was the sole reason Serbia are defending Davis Cup Champions in 2011. That, he said, was the turning point of his short career. A Davis Cup match? He claims to have woken up after that and simply decided to ‘start playing better on the big points against the top players’. The top players were only two- Roger and Rafa. Murray was almost there, too- as he always is. It can’t be so simple, can it?

End of an era?

Novak Djokovic then bid goodbye to a relatively disappointing 2010 season, with not many points to defend next year. He was always good, but was probably forever destined to be the greatest number 3 player of all time. Murray knows the feeling now, only he is number four. It is still a crown, of sorts.
Djokovic then blew away Federer in the semi-finals at the Australian Open and swatted aside Murray in a fashion that proved that he has been on this stage before, and ‘big matches’ are just another day in the office for him.
He lost to Roger Federer in probably the best match of the year at the French Open in May- and his march to the top ranking position was thwarted, atleast for the time being, after defeating Nadal repeatedly on clay before that. Many say that if not for Federer, we would have had the ‘perfect slam’ in the calendar year 2011- the first after Rod Laver’s second in 1969. Implausible, no? Not anymore.

The Djoker unmasked

This has been the year of the Djoker. He has eased Nadal into a permanent number two slot on the tour. One good year, many say, happens to everyone. But 2011 was not merely a good year. 2 losses till October (one exhaustion-induced) cements this year as one of the most dominant years in professional men’s tennis. And trust us when we say that- nothing was more out of the blue than this. It couldn’t have possibly been a third player, could it? Maybe Del Potro at some point of time, but Djokovic? The guy who has ‘almost’ always been there, but is still known best for his mimicking skills?
The US Open was a bloody battle right down to the last set of the tournament. And finally, in what drove home the real World Order right now, Nadal was ‘mentally’ exhausted by the fourth set of the final- and broken by the Djoker in what was the most
physically destructive final of the decade so far.
The semi-final where Djokovic was down two match points to Roger in the fifth set, was an hour shorter and included a lot of impatient, short points that spelled doom for Federer by the end. Did he want it bad enough to slug it out? The question does not apply to him, because he was never going to sacrifice his relaxed and graceful style in order to win just another slam. He never will- which is why he is still playing at the top level at age 30.
If Roger signifies grace and the ‘perfect game’, Nadal signifies the doggedness of the very limits of human spirit- and finally, Djokovic currently signifies a bit of both. He seems to be a perfect cocktail- just what may have been needed to break the stranglehold of the Roger-Rafa era and shock us into a new dawn: a dawn that signifies the progression (some say regression) of tennis to yet another level of physical bravura.

The US Open 2011 also signified the disappointing stagnancy of certain young players like Andy Murray, Gael Monfils, David Ferrer, Richard Gasquet, Marion Cilic and the old warhorse Andy Roddick. They constitute the best of the rest, and will be seen scrambling for tour wins at the fag end of one of the greatest years in world sport- in ‘minor’ tournaments so that they can win a coveted place at the ATP World Tour finals in Istanbul this year.
The top three, or should we say- the top dog followed by the next two- are already waiting. The symphony has reached its final few notes, and the crescendo shall be provided in fine style at this exclusive top-8 tournament.

Pink of Health no more

Novak Djokovic is looking to break the long-standing best year record of 82-3 by McEnroe. One wouldn’t bet against that. Rafael Nadal is looking for a formula to beat his great nemesis- who is now the Djoker. Roger Federer is looking to break back into the top two and achieve what was rightfully his. If there is anybody who can stop Novak, it is Roger. And if there was anyone who could stop Roger, it was Nadal. A gruesome threesome, it is.

Onto the Davis Cup rounds, where Champions Serbia (and Djokovic if fit) take on Argentina at home in a crucial semi-final tie today, and the Swiss Master Federer relives his childhood with a match-up against Lleyton Hewitt of Australia as part of the world-group qualifying contest. As we speak, he has just beaten the gritty Australian in 4 sets on grass at Sydney, drawing Switzerland level 1-1 after an early win by young sensation Tomic over Wawrinka.
Tomic will now face Federer- in what will be a mouth watering clash between the present and future generations of World Tennis.

Men’s tennis, at this rate, could just see the best of the rest compete for some very important pre-season points at the first tournament of the year: The Aircel Chennai Open 2012. Swiss Defending Champion Wawrinka may not be the favorite anymore, just as he was not in 2011, and one expects up-and-comers Dolgopolov, Tomic , Berdych and Cilic (two-time champion here, of course) to make an early statement in 2012.
It sets the tone for the rising stars, and provides a much-needed boost to them in order to compete with the giants at the slams. If we are lucky, we could just see a couple of ‘newcomers’ this year- hopefully members of the resident top 10 list.

Onto the Davis Cup rounds, where Champions Serbia (and Djokovic if fit) take on Argentina at home in a crucial semi-final tie today, and the Swiss Master Federer relives his childhood with a match-up against Lleyton Hewitt of Australia as part of the world-group qualifying contest. As we speak, he has just beaten the gritty Australian in 4 sets on grass at Sydney, drawing Switzerland level 1-1 after an early win by young sensation Tomic over Wawrinka.
Tomic will now face Federer- in what will be a mouth watering clash between the present and future generations of World Tennis.  

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