2012: Four Scored In This Year A Go-Go
And so, the 2012 ATP Tour tennis season – the full calendar of prize money events – is over. The Czechs and the Spaniards have a Davis Cup duel to tend to, but the brightest lights in men’s tennis (save for Mr. Berdych and Mr. Ferrer) have arrived at the end of the line.
2012 was a wonderful year in men’s tennis – objectively speaking, not just from a Federer fan’s perspective. Sure, the object of (primary) affection on this blog created a lasting memory with his soaring triumph at Wimbledon in July. He also ensured that Switzerland gained a medal at the Summer Olympics by beating Juan Martin del Potro in that classic 19-17 third set at the All-England Club. However, the other three members of the (now truly) Big Four also forged their own magnificent moments in the sun.
Novak Djokovic took his time between points, but winning a five-set, five-hour-and-53-minute major final against Rafael Nadal still rates as an epic achievement. Djokovic made more major finals than anyone else on the ATP (three) and earned three Masters titles, tying Federer. He didn’t achieve what he did in 2011, but the Serb’s body of work rates as stellar in its own right. Djokovic did quite well to back up his 2011 with another array of impressive results. His ability to continue to fend off match points in big-stage situations (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the French Open quarters, Andy Murray in the Shanghai Masters final) reminded the rest of the tour that Djokovic is still the toughest out in tennis. He didn’t enhance his legacy to the extent that he could have in 2012, but Novak Djokovic still burnished his credentials instead of detracting from them.
Rafael Nadal carried the combined pressure of burden and opportunity in 2006 and 2007 when he stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier for Roland Garros finals against Roger Federer. On those sun-baked days in Paris, Nadal was the only man standing in the way of his competitor’s fourth straight major title and a very possible calendar Grand Slam. Nadal had to deliver the goods in order to affirm his greatness on clay… and attain the more immediate yet substantial goal of winning a major title for himself. Forget the notion of denying someone else a prime accomplishment; Nadal’s foremost priority was not to spoil a foe’s party. He needed to win for his own sake. The fact that he was able to swat away Federer on those two occasions helped to catapult Nadal to a new level of excellence, a much higher place in the tennis pantheon.
This past year, Nadal entered that same situation once more, but on a rainy Sunday in Paris instead of a sun-drenched afternoon on red brick. His opponent – in search of a fourth straight major and tennis immortality on a larger scale – was not Federer, but Djokovic. Nadal had stopped Djokovic in Monte Carlo, but that was the week when the Serb was mourning the death of his grandfather. Nadal beat Djokovic once again in the Rome final, but it was reasonable to opine that the reigning holder of three major trophies was biding his time and saving his mental energy for Roland Garros. Nadal had 10 major titles to his name when he faced Djokovic in early June. Yet, for the legends of sport, the weight of expectations is hard to dismiss… at least as long as another prestigious championship lies within striking distance. Nadal was once again left athwart tennis history, yelling “STOP!” (in Spanish, perhaps) at another man who wanted to join Rod Laver as the winner of four straight majors, albeit not in a calendar year.
Very simply, with the past serving as prelude, Nadal’s ability to stand tall against Djokovic and win his seventh French Open stamped him – without any slight shred of lingering doubt – as the greatest male clay-court tennis player who has ever lived. He won only one major and he was lamentably absent from the second half of 2012 due to injuries. Yet, the Mallorcan still achieved richly this past year. The Picket Fence wishes Nadal a happy, healthy and whole 2013.
Last but certainly not least, Andy Murray discarded the baggage that rested heavily on his shoulders. Scotch in defeat, Murray became a lifelong Brit by winning Olympic gold against Federer and then claiming his first major title (not his second, Ivan Lendl) at the U.S. Open in a gritty five-setter against Djokovic. You can say what you want about the draw and the weather conditions and the absence of Nadal, but asterisks don’t belong in tennis… not generally, and certainly not to the extent that a lot of casual fans think they should. Murray – like any elite player – made use of circumstances that worked in his favor. He saw his opportunity and pounced on it. That’s not asterisk-worthy fare; that’s praiseworthy stuff. Murray chased away his demons. Djokovic made him earn that U.S. Open title in full. The notion that Murray’s Open title was or is cheap is entirely laughable. The Big Three is now verily the Big Four in tennis. A special 2012 made it so.