Djokovic himself was victorious in 70 of 76 matches across 2011, winning three majors, claiming ten championships. But in that magnificent campaign he understandably faded down the stretch after winning his first U.S. Open, and suffered four losses in his last ten matches, becoming a spent force in the process. This year, he definitely surpassed what he did in 2011. In my view, he also outdid the Connors of 1974 and eclipsed McEnroe in 1984. I also put this one just above Federer in 2006, but slightly below Laver’s outstanding 1969 campaign. Djokovic made it to all four finals and took three of the Grand Slam events (as the Swiss did nine years ago), closed his season with five tournament triumphs in a row, and ended it in style at London’s much heralded 02 Arena by toppling Federer decisively in the final of the ATP World Tour Championships. He underlined his supremacy by establishing himself as the first man ever to be the victor at six Masters 1000 events in one year.
The final in London was an important match for Djokovic. He was joined in the Stan Smith round robin group by Federer, Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych. Djokovic crushed Nishikori convincingly 6-1, 6-1 in his opening assignment, but then was ousted 7-5, 6-2 by an inspired Federer. That setback ended a 23 match winning streak for the Serbian, who recouped two days later, ousting Berdych 6-3, 7-5 to ensure his place in the semifinals. In that penultimate round appointment, he took apart a revitalized Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-3. Federer collided with Stan Wawrinka in his semifinal, and came away with a 7-5, 6-3 victory.
And so, as if by design, unsurprisingly to most learned observers, to the delight of the tennis cognoscenti, the last tournament match of 2015 for the leading players was a duel between none other than Djokovic and Federer, the two men who have dominated the indoor game over the past decade. Here was Federer in search of a seventh crown in this elite event reserved only for the top eight players in the world. Across the net stood the estimable Djokovic, eager to make amends for his round robin defeat against the Swiss Maestro, determined to conclude the year on his own terms by claiming a fifth triumph at what is arguably the fifth most prestigious tournament in the game of tennis.
Both players seemed apprehensive at the outset, understandably so considering what was at stake. Djokovic had a break point in the opening game, but squandered it with an errant forehand return off a better than average yet not extraordinary second serve. Federer held on for 1-0. Djokovic got to 30-0 in the second game but Federer swept three points in a row to garner his own break point opportunity. He seemed well stationed for a forehand inside-in, but netted that shot somewhat tamely. Djokovic held on for 1-1, and went to work sternly from there. At 30-30 in the third game, Federer had Djokovic pinned behind the baseline. The Swiss sent a solid forehand volley down the line, but the Serbian found a small opening crosscourt for a brilliant backhand passing shot winner. Down break point, Federer fended off a couple of searing shots from Djokovic, but, trying to go on offense, he faltered, sending a forehand into the net.
Djokovic had the break for 2-1. From 30-30 in the following game, he aced Federer down the T and then aced him out wide, holding for 3-1. After Federer had held easily in the fifth game, Djokovic faced another crucial moment when he served at 3-2. He had a game point at 40-30 that Federer erased emphatically, slicing a backhand short crosscourt to open up an avenue for a majestic backhand winner down the line. Federer then created a break point opportunity. But the 17 time major titlist could not convert, driving a backhand down the line well over the baseline. Djokovic held his ground sedulously, moving to 4-2.
Two games later, Djokovic found himself locked at 30-30, but he served a clutch ace out wide in the deuce court. At 40-30, Djokovic got good kick on his second delivery, opening up the court for a trademark backhand down the line winner. On to 5-3 he went. Serving to stay in the set, Federer tried a sneak approach to the net at 15-30, but the tactic backfired as Djokovic made a nifty low backhand passing shot to elicit a netted backhand volley. Federer found himself double set point down at 15-40. He saved one set point, but could not rescue himself on the second. Djokovic’s topspin lob over Federer’s backhand side backed up the Swiss. The Serbian was poised to succeed, and he did just that by taking Federer’s weak shot and rolling a low passing shot down the middle. Federer’s half volley attempt failed. Set to Djokovic, 6-3.
That insurance break enabled Djokovic to start serving the second set, which was a clear advantage for him. With a 40-30 lead in the opening game, Djokovic sensed Federer was ready to run around his backhand to release a stinging forehand return. The Serbian intelligently sent his second serve down the T for an ace and held for 1-0 with that bold move. But Federer was now raising his intensity, becoming quietly yet unmistakably more demonstrative, and looking for any chance he could find to work his way into the match. He held at 15 for 1-1, serving three aces in that stellar game.
Now both players settled into a comfortable pattern of holding. On their way to 3-3, Djokovic conceded only three points in two service games while Federer was even more efficient, taking eight of ten points on his markedly improved delivery, serving his fourth ace of the set in the sixth game. The Federer fans were growing more buoyant as he pressed on with growing confidence. Yet Djokovic was unflappable. He held at 15 for 4-3 despite missing four out of five first serves. He would win 16 of 19 second serve points (84%) in the match while Federer stood on the opposite end of the spectrum, losing 12 of 21 on his second serve (43%).
Serving at 3-4 with new balls, Federer was close to the brink of defeat. A stupendous running forehand crosscourt passing shot winner lifted Djokovic to 0-30. He then put on a clinically precise performance from the backcourt, reaching 0-40 with a heavy topspin forehand inside in that landed safely in the corner for a winner. Djokovic had arrived at triple break point for 5-3. It seemed almost certain that he would soon be serving for the match.
But Federer had entirely different notions. He released an unstoppable first serve out wide to the backhand for 15-40. Another Federer first serve coaxed a forehand return error from Djokovic, who should probably have kept that one in play. At 30-40, Federer sent a terrific first serve wide to the backhand, and Djokovic lunged to his left as only he can and got the return back with reasonable depth. Yet Federer was unimpressed, moving into the court for a forehand inside in that was unanswerable. An ace at 125 MPH down the T took Federer to game point, and then he completed an astonishing five point winning sequence with a remarkable backhand down the line that forced Djokovic to net a forehand on the run.
That exhilarating stand left the predominantly Federer fans in a state of euphoria. Largely against the odds, he was back to 4-4. It was the kind of surge that would have left lesser men dazed and deflated. But Djokovic simply cast aside his disappointment and moved past it swiftly. He opened the ninth game with a down the line backhand winner, and held at love for 5-4 with another backhand winner down the line. Federer was once more playing with little margin for error, serving to stay in the match, facing the game’s greatest returner.
After an unforced error off the forehand put him down 0-15, Federer lost a tremendous 31 shot rally with his adversary, erring off the backhand at the end after Djokovic sent one ball after another within inches of the baseline. Federer was fortunate at 0-30 when Djokovic missed a good opening for a crosscourt forehand winner, but then the Swiss punched a backhand down the line volley in the net with Djokovic seemingly out of the point. At 15-40, Djokovic missed a second serve return off the forehand, but then the Swiss double faulted long at 30-40. Djokovic thus gained a gratifying victory 6-3, 6-4 without losing his serve in a pair of hard fought sets. The deadly accuracy of his delivery was astonishing, particularly some of the sliced second serves he released down the T just inside the center service line in the deuce court. Moreover, the depth and bite of his ad court kicker was another reason Federer was so frustrated on his returns. It was Djokovic’s fifth victory in eight meetings with Federer over the course of the 2015 season, and thus he evened his career series with his old rival at 22-22. Federer was ahead in his series with the Serbian 13-6 at the end of 2010, but in the last five years the Serbian owns a 16-9 lead over the Swiss.
The day before Djokovic took the title in London over Federer, he finally caught up with Nadal in that highly acclaimed rivalry at 23-23. In their first 23 clashes, Nadal was victorious 16 times. But in the last 23 meetings, the tables have been turned completely, with Djokovic winning 16 of the battles, including eight of his last nine skirmishes with the ever industrious and unwavering Spaniard. In that semifinal London contest, Djokovic replicated what he did against Federer, moving through two concentrated and immensely disciplined sets without once losing his serve. In fact, against Nadal, Djokovic never faced a break point and was not even pushed to deuce on his delivery. His 6-3, 6-3 victory was virtually pressure free as he controlled the tempo comprehensively from the baseline, keeping Nadal off balance and ill at ease, looking thoroughly comfortable from beginning to end.
Djokovic got off to the best possible start in that contest, sweeping 12 of 16 points to reach 3-0, breaking Nadal at love in the second game with four consecutive outright winners. He unleashed a forehand down the line into the clear, then connected with a backhand down the line, followed by another forehand down the line that was out of reach for the Spaniard. Djokovic finished that scintillating sequence with a two-handed crosscourt placement. Nadal looked for every tactic he could to compete favorably.
He served frequently into the body of his opponent, and was not broken again in that set. But Djokovic was always unthreatened, winning 20 of 27 points in his five service games during the opening set. Djokovic broke in the fifth and ninth games of the second set with meticulous execution from the baseline and uncanny instincts. Djokovic connected with only 47% of his first serves in the second set but it did not matter. Nadal kept his first serve percentage at 70% but it wasn’t nearly enough to thwart such a magnificent returner.
In the other semifinal, Federer trailed 2-4 in the first set against Stan Wawrinka, but the match turned irreversibly in the favorite’s direction when Wawrinka served in the eighth game. His vulnerability off the forehand surfaced at this critical juncture of the match. The French Open champion netted an approach off that side at 15-15, missed again for 15-30, double faulted to fall behind 15-40, and then bungled a backhand. Federer had broken back for 4-4. At 5-5, the 34-year-old held at love. Serving to stay in the set, Wawrinka double faulted for 15-15, made a glaring forehand unprovoked mistake for 15-30, and then inexplicably approached crosscourt off the forehand on consecutive points, going straight into the strength of his opponent. Federer pounced, making one passing shot winner and following with a shot that was too much for Wawrinka to handle.
The set had gone to Federer 7-5. He was down 0-30 in the first game of the second set after double faulting, but Wawrinka unjustifiably missed a forehand down the line passing shot into the net tape. Federer kept the pressure on with some timely and impressive serving-and-volleying, exposing the Wawrinka return of serve vulnerability with that strategy. The block returns were easy prey for Federer, who saved a break point on his way to 3-0. Federer won 7-5, 6-3, raising his career record against his friend and countryman to 18-3. All three Wawrinka wins have occurred on clay; he has yet to overcome his adversary on any other surface.
Be that as it may, the tournament was devoid of sparkle in many ways. It always seemed entirely possible that Djokovic and Federer would meet twice because they are unassailable indoors. It was just a matter of which man would win the group. Their round robin collision was played at a high level for a set, with Federer escaping from break point down in the opening game of the match with a cagey kick first serve stifling Djokovic. He broke the Serbian at 5-6 to seal the opening set and then broke him three more times in the second set, coming through 7-5, 6-2 with a sprightly performance against a seemingly flat Djokovic. Inevitably, Djokovic sealed the No. 2 spot, toppling Berdych in a lackluster contest.
Meanwhile, the most stirring showdown in the group was Federer’s last round robin appearance against Nishikori. The Japanese stylist had seemed physically compromised when he was obliterated by a top of the line Djokovic 6-1, 6-1. But he battled back to beat Berdych in three sets, and so he still had an outside shot at the semifinals when he took on Federer in probably the most entertaining encounter of the week. Nishikori came from 1-3 down in the first set, had a game point for 5-3 that he did not convert, and lost the set 7-5. Federer rolled to 4-1 in the second set, only to lose five consecutive games under an avalanche of scorching second serve returns from the gifted Nishikori. Federer marched on to 4-1 in the third but Nishikori rallied once more to 4-4. Ultimately, Federer came through 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 despite losing his serve five times. From his end of the court, it was admirable stuff; he had already secured a semifinal slot so this match was essentially meaningless from the Federer standpoint. Yet he played it out at full force. Nishikori had not returned or competed with such verve in a very long while. It was a joy to watch both men in such a setting.
In the Ilie Nastase Group, the battle for the two semifinal places always figured to come down to a three way struggle among Nadal, Andy Murray and Wawrinka, with David Ferrer never likely to be much of a factor. Nadal opened in a pivotal confrontation with Wawrinka. He had played him twice over the autumn, dismissing an indifferent Swiss at the cost of only three games in a quarterfinal at Shanghai, losing an agonizing collision indoors in two tie-breaks after having set points in both sets when the two men met indoors at Paris. This time around, they exchanged breaks in the first two games but Nadal gradually found his range and made Wawrinka play the match on his own terms. The court was playing slow all week and the Spaniard made that work to his advantage, picking Wawrinka apart with heavy topspin off both sides.
Nadal took the first set 6-3. Wawrinka saved a cluster of break points in the first game of the second set and then had Nadal down 15-40 in the second game of the second set. The Spaniard scampered forward to chase down a Wawrinka drop volley, and somehow lifted a winning lob out of reach just inside the baseline. He held on for 1-1 and thereafter Wawrinka almost stopped competing. Nadal was a 6-3, 6-2 winner. Wawrinka’s lack of professionalism was striking.
In his next round robin match, Nadal cut down Murray 6-4, 6-1. From 4-4 in the first set, he won eight of the last nine games. His forehand was humming after he pocketed the first set, his two-hander was solid and he hardly missed a ball across the second set. To be sure, Murray lost his way and served poorly. He won only 34% of his second serve points (falling to 10% in the second set) while Nadal was up at 67% in that department. Murray’s negativity hampered him as he failed to assert himself in the rallies. But Nadal’s performance was first rate.
Murray had commenced his participation with a straight set win over Ferrer. After his shellacking at the hands of Nadal, the British No. 1 played Wawrinka in his last round robin duel. The stakes were absolutely clear to both players when they walked on court because the winner would automatically advance to the semifinals and the loser would be out of the tournament. Wawrinka served for the first set but did not close it out, and then the two men travelled to a tie-break. Murray led 4-2 but lost five consecutive points and the set with some serious blunders. Before Murray knew it, he was down 5-2 and two breaks in the second. Wawrinka tightened up considerably before closing out the 7-6 (4), 6-4 account.
Nadal, meanwhile, realized before he even walked on court with Ferrer for his last round robin clash that he had garnered the No. 1 spot on his group, and was well aware he would be facing Djokovic the next day in the penultimate round. He was playing for nothing more than 200 ATP ranking points and pride when he confronted Ferrer. In opening up a 3-0, two service break lead, Nadal was ultra-aggressive by his standards and unrelenting. He was virtually letter perfect. Nadal seemed set to run out that set comfortably. But he slipped into passivity, allowed Ferrer to dictate off the forehand, and wasted his lead. Ferrer took four games in a row.
Nevertheless, Nadal broke again for 6-5 and had a set point but failed to press home his advantage. Ferrer stole the set. Nadal had every reason not to want to play two more sets, to get off the court and save everything he had in his emotional arsenal for Djokovic the next day. But he did nothing of the kind, rallying for a 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-4 victory after being down 3-4, 0-30 in the final set. A beautifully played forehand drop volley got him back to 15-30 in that critical eighth game. He won 12 of 14 points to get the win. Perhaps he was a bit fatigued the next day against the world No. 1, but Nadal had displayed the integrity and honor that have been his hallmark throughout a storied career when he fought so hard against the indefatigable Ferrer.
The Spaniard finishes the year at No. 5 in the world; in the previous ten years he had never been ranked below No. 4 at the end of a season. The fact remains that he wrapped up the year as a far better player than the competitor who commenced it. After his abysmal loss to Fabio Fognini in the third round of the U.S. Open, Nadal played five tournaments, reaching two finals, advancing to two semifinals, losing once in the quarterfinals. Two of his losses were to Djokovic, and one was a close call against Federer in the title round contest at Basel. There is more work to be done, but the view here is that he will be ranked second in the world at the end of next year behind Djokovic. The serve needs more velocity against certain opponents and more accuracy against other key adversaries, but his forehand is decidedly more stable and his backhand is closer in speed and depth to where it needs to be.
But we must not digress. The story of the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships was surely the Man of the Year, and that was indisputably Djokovic. He lost thrice to Federer in 2015, once to Wawrinka, once to Murray and once to the ever aggravating and dangerous Ivo Karlovic. Only those four men had the gumption to topple the Serbian. Djokovic made it to at least the final of his last 15 tournaments in 2015. That was consistency of the highest order, and excellence of a rare kind. He is in the summertime of his talent. Whether or not he can replicate those staggering feats in 2016 remains to be seen, but Novak Djokovic seems certain to achieve prodigiously in the coming year and well beyond. He may be very close to his zenith at the moment, but he can still make minor modifications and become an even better tennis player. His greatness has not yet been fully realized or defined.