He may not have repeated what he accomplished in 2011, but Djokovic’s valiant 2012 campaign identified him as the most formidable figure in an era filled with more formidable figures than any other in tennis history.
How does one write the sequel to a masterpiece? What comes next after near-perfection?
Such was the challenge confronting Djokovic as he began his 2012 season in the shadow of a 2011 campaign that ranked among the greatest in tennis history. His brilliance of the previous year had raised expectations so high that almost any realistic group of results would seem a disappointment by comparison. Although he acknowledged the improbability of duplicating 2011, Djokovic still looked burdened by the pressure of the past when he attempted to defend his Australian Open title. After a complicated four-setter against Hewitt, he endured one of the most arduous straight-sets victories imaginable against Ferrer in a display of vulnerability. Already having expended more energy than he would prefer, the world #1 then faced the towering physical test of consecutive matches against Murray and Nadal. Trailing the former by two sets to one and the latter by a set, he slogged through nearly 11 hours on court during a span of two matches, a feat of endurance perhaps unprecedented in the sport. The record-breaking final in Melbourne raised the sport to new levels of physicality, where few but Nadal could sustain the determination to follow him.
Although he struggled to finish off both rivals, Djokovic’s ability to rise above adversity testified to the confidence that he had accumulated over the previous year of impregnability. Without the fortress that he had built from it, he likely would not have won a third Australian Open crown. The first few cracks in it opened at Indian Wells, another attempted title defense that ended with an edgy semifinal loss to Isner. Frustrated and uninspired in his body language, Djokovic allowed the American’s mammoth serve to unravel his mind more than he would have a year before. Nevertheless, he regrouped briskly to protect the other slice of North American territory that he had captured in 2011, repeating his Australian victory over Murray. Assisted by a draw littered with upsets, the Serb cruised through the Miami draw without dropping a set and ended the spring hard-court season with two of its three most prominent titles. He had not quite replicated the dominance of the previous year, but few could fault a performance still well within the realm of the outstanding.
Despite the death of his beloved grandfather, Djokovic declined to withdraw from the Monte Carlo event that he had not played in 2011 and deserved credit for wresting away a three-setter from Berdych under the difficult circumstances. A listless loss to Nadal broke his stranglehold over the rivalry atop the ATP, however, and provided the Spaniard with valuable emotional capital for their later meetings on the surface. Unwilling to commit his full effort to the blue clay of Madrid, Djokovic could brush aside his early loss there as meaningless in his looming quest for a Nole Slam at Roland Garros. Only one man (Rod Laver) had won all four majors consecutively, so the pressure mounted on the world #1 to accomplish something that none of his contemporaries had. Shouldering that weight together with the weight of his 2011 performances, he surrendered another final to Nadal as his Rome title defense eluded him. Of some solace was his semifinal triumph over Federer in their first meeting of the season, which avenged the lone blot to his major resume the previous year that occurred in a Roland Garros semifinal. When the second major of 2012 arrived, though, he had abdicated his status as the title favorite to that tournament’s defending champion.
Not for nothing had Djokovic proclaimed his determination to complete the Nole Slam at Roland Garros, where he gallantly survived one test after another even as they exposed his frailties. He averted an ignominious setback by climbing out of a two-set deficit against Seppi and tottered on the precipice while saving match points against Tsonga. In both of those matches, Djokovic benefited from opponents who lacked belief that they could defeat a champion of his talent. Handed an opponent never lacking in belief with a semifinal rematch against Federer, he denied the Swiss star any genuine hope of the mini-upset by handling the variable conditions carefully and keeping his emotions in check as the Nole Slam lay just two victories ahead. On a soggy Sunday and sunny Monday, then, Djokovic played for the chance at history that had inspired since before the season. But the more inspired man on this occasion was Nadal, playing for a different sort of history, and only briefly did the Serb threaten to mount an improbable comeback in an effort that looked doomed from nearly the outset. The only man ever to win eight straight games from the Spaniard at Roland Garros, Djokovic could not sustain his momentum from Sunday evening into Monday afternoon. His courage ultimately faltered against the combined challenge posed by the greatest clay-court player ever and the magnitude of this opportunity for almost unparalleled greatness, which ended with an anticlimactic double fault. In retrospect, however, a fourth straight major final under the pressure that he sustained throughout the fortnight represented a praiseworthy feat in itself.
Understandably unable to take this long-term view in the short term, Djokovic stumbled through his least impressive span of 2012 during the grass season. Even that period of relative underachievement produced semifinals at Wimbledon and the Olympics, however, demonstrating the consistency that defined his efforts this year. Little could salve the wound of failing to secure any medal at the Olympics in a year when the gold had hovered within his grasp, especially since Serbia values its medalists so highly and had rested its greatest hopes on Djokovic. Exacerbating the sting was his loss to the #1 ranking to Federer after falling to the Swiss at Wimbledon. Less steeped with mutual respect than his rivalry with Nadal is Djokovic’s rapport (or lack of it) with Federer, and the sporadic friction between them must have deepened his disappointment in surrendering the top spot after exactly a year there. A lesser man might have spiraled downwards for the rest of the summer, but the deposed prince righted his ship immediately by coming within one match of the Canada-Cincinnati double for the second straight year. Although the latter tournament again eluded his grasp, the four-time finalist there could approach the US Open with some confidence restored.
Without any of his three main rivals situated in his half of the draw, Djokovic spent most of his New York fortnight crushing overmatched opponents with almost farcical ease. Other than the usual late-summer thunderstorms, the only serious obstacle to his progress came from Del Potro, who had defeated him in the Olympics bronze-medal match. Avenging that loss in a quarterfinal closer than the scoreline showed, Djokovic accumulated the impetus that seemed likely to carry him to a fourth consecutive title at a hard-court major. Pitted against Murray, his victim at the last two Australian Opens, he should have felt secure in his ability to defend his title. Far from secure for most of the first two sets, by contrast, he managed to look even more tense than the man seeking his first major title during a gruesome first-set tiebreak. Having lost it, he did not respond with his usual resolve but sank into a self-pitying malaise that consumed most of the second set. Only then, as he did at Roland Garros, did Djokovic mount his valiant charge, and the next two sets witnessed some of his best tennis against elite opponents all year. For the second time in a major final, he could not carry an improbable comeback to its conclusion, but none could deny that he had forced the champion to exert every inch of his talent and will to halt him.
Moral victories offer only a limited consolation for victories of the more genuine variety, nevertheless, and Djokovic once again found himself forced to rebound from a situation in which he had fallen just short of a significant achievement. Rarely at his best during the post-US Open fall season, he marshaled his energies this time to win his third Masters 1000 title of the season at Shanghai, an event where he never had reached the final before. With that effort, Djokovic joined Federer as the only active men who have reached the final at every major and Masters 1000 tournament in their careers. The week culminated in a worthy sequel to the US Open final, a duel with Murray that threatened to produce the same result as their summer meetings. Down match point no fewer than five times in the second set, the vintage fearlessness of Djokovic finally emerged from wherever it had vanished when they met in New York. The Serb swung ever more boldly on the brink of defeat and grew emotionally stronger with each bullet dodged, eventually wearing down Murray in the final set.
A champion at the World Tour Finals four years before, Djokovic had not excelled there since the event had moved to London. In the same group as Murray and a resurgent Berdych, his route to the semifinals looked far from assured. Overcoming the Scot again in another three-set epic, he continued his mastery over the Czech while posting an undefeated round-robin record for the first time. Slow starts in the semifinal against Del Potro and the final against Federer subjected him to significant pressure on both occasions, pressure to which he responded with a gritty relentlessness that neither rival could match for long. Winning long game after long game from those two fellow champions, Djokovic finished his season with a breathtaking backhand pass for the title that evoked his wondrous shots of the previous year.
If 2011 was a year of brilliance for the man who ended it atop the rankings, 2012 was a year of resilience for the man who ended it in the same place.
Number to note:
10: The number of finals that Djokovic reached at majors, Masters 1000 tournaments, and the year-end championships this year. At only two of those events, Madrid and Paris, did he fail to reach at least the semifinals. While Federer recorded an outstanding first half and Murray a remarkable second half, the year-end #1 sustained his excellence throughout the protracted calendar.
Having progressed through breakthroughs and breakdowns, signature achievements and overachievers, unsung heroes and upsets, this review of the 2012 season has concluded. Nothing signals the start of a new season like the Hopman Cup in Perth, and we will begin 2013 coverage with a preview of that entertaining event.