Before sparking up YouTube, here's some context: It's the semifinals of the U.S. Open, the last of the year's Major events, the four tentpoles of the tennis season. Novak Djokovic has been a dominating force in 2011. It's the second weekend in September and he has lost two matches the entire year, on pace to turn in the most dominating men's tennis season in the Open Era. At this juncture, though, he is trailing the great Roger Federer in the fifth set. He is a point from a defeat that would not only bounce him from the tournament, but would sound the death knell on his claim to the greatest season ever. (Winning two Grand Slam titles in one year is nothing to despair; but, heck, as recently as 2010 Rafael Nadal won three.) Oh, we forgot to add this: Federer is serving. So here we go. Federer rocks back, uncoils his frame and.....
See that? Djokovic swung with devil-may-care abandon, absolutely smiting the return, hitting it back with force and accuracy. "I closed my eyes and went for it," he said. Then he turned serious. "You have to take your chances when they're presented." He won the next point. And the game. And the next game. And the two after that. And, moments after he was a point from exiting the tournament, Djokovic charted a courageous escape to win a heart-stopping, breath-taking, mind-bending match 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. Making the most of this reprieve, he returned two days later and beat up on Nadal, as he has all year, to win the title, pushing his 2011 record to a then-absurd, 64-2. As Nadal said after that, "When one very good player stays with that confidence and wins matches he [should] win, and wins the matches he could lose, the season is probably impossible to repeat." The Djokovic 2011 World Domination Tour, which included 10 titles, three Grand Slam wins, and a 21-4 record against Top 10 opponents, added to the embarrassment of riches in men's tennis. For all the sport's structural defects and congenital in-fighting, the on-court product has been exceptional. We had Roger Federer, the Greatest Player of All-Time, eclipse the all-time record for Majors, all the while comporting himself with such dignity that his approval ratings rival those of Nelson Mandela.
Then we had Rafael Nadal, who may have lacked Federer's artistry and style but competed as though each loss carried a price in blood -- only to morph back into a decent, courteous, down-to-earth guy once the match ended. And now we have a third guy come along and practically run the table on the entire year, winning matches as if buying bulk at Costco? "Pretty incredible these last few years," says Djokovic, "isn't it?" What's made Djokovic's year particularly incredible -- and made him particularly worthy of being named the 2011 Sportsman of the Year -- is the presence of the other two guys. Djokovic won on every surface, on four different continents. He's won in blowouts; he's won tight matches. But perhaps above all, he's done so with Federer and Nadal as contemporaries. In the past, when players have won relentlessly, the cynical response goes like this: "Yeah, but who's his competition?" In Djokovic's case, you can hardly say that. He was 10-1 in 2011 against two of the best players ever to draw breath. And 60-5 against everyone else. Which bring us back to that screaming forehand return. It's as good a metaphor as any for Djokovic's year. For much of his career, he was the annoying puppy, occasionally biting the ankles of Federer and Nadal. He was consigned to years of being No. 3, face pressed to the glass, a talented player of questionable heart who appeared to have been born at the wrong time. Yet, before the start of 2011 -- galvanized by Serbia's Davis Cup triumph, according to the narrative -- he decided to make his move. He embraced fitness. He disavowed gluten. He tinkered with his equipment. In short, not unlike that defining forehand return, he sized up his career, and went for broke. Eyes wide open, this time, he took his chances and swung away.
The results don't just speak for themselves. They whistle.