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Season rewind: Djokovic's domination

Nearly four years ago, an imposing, impossibly mature 20-year-old from Belgrade ran the table Down Under.

He swatted aside Aussie favorite Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round, tenacious David Ferrer in the quarters and, in the semifinals, a guy named Federer -- all without dropping a set. When Novak Djokovic -- in his second straight major final -- defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to capture the 2008 Australian Open crown, he seemed destined to collect many, many more Grand Slam singles titles.

And then, Djokovic whiffed in his next 11 tries and some people wondered if that spectacular fortnight in Melbourne was merely the second coming of Marat Safin's out-of-the-blue victory at the 2000 U.S. Open. He struggled with his confidence and conditioning, his serve wandered in and out of relevance.

In 2011, however, Djokovic became the best tennis player on the planet. He won three of the four majors, 10 titles in all, finished 70-6 and took home more than $12 million in prize money.

So what happened?

"It's true that I have improved but by a very small percentage," Djokovic told Patrick McEnroe in ESPN the Magazine's Interview Issue. "It's the same game I've had the last couple of years; it's my mental approach on the court that's changed. That was the difference.

"I stepped it up. I matured and said, 'It's my time. I can do it. I can win major titles.'"

Djokovic's only loss in a major came to Roger Federer in the semifinals at Roland Garros (he lost both tiebreakers), and it ended a 43-match winning streak. He came back in New York and took down his two chief tormentors -- Federer and Rafael Nadal -- in the last two matches to become the U.S. Open champion and, going away, Player of the Year.

But that sustained excellence came with a price. Djokovic's shoulder, which has been stressed going back to the 97-match season he played in 2009, gave him grief. He pulled out of four matches in four months. Six days after the U.S. Open, he retired from his Davis Cup match with Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro. In a span of one week in November, Djokovic lost to Kei Nishikori in Basel and withdrew before his Paris match against Tsonga.

If you're thinking this might bode poorly for 2012, you might be right. The Toll of the Triple, in recent years, almost guarantees it. The past two men to win three of four majors in a year -- Nadal in 2009 and Federer in 2007 -- won only one major the following season.

In the spirit of the looming New Year, here are a few other stories from 2011 worth revisiting:

Rafa's little problem: Nadal has won seven majors in the past four years -- three more than next-in-line Federer. He led Spain to its second Davis Cup title in three years. He could wind up winning seven or eight (or nine) French Open titles and has an outside chance of supplanting Federer's record of 16 career Grand Slam singles titles.

But … going forward, Nadal needs to find a way to beat Djokovic.

Rafa went 0-6 against Djokovic in 2011. The last two -- the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- left him visibly shaken.

"Six straight losses, for sure, that is painful," Nadal said in New York. "I have a goal, easy goal. Going to be a tough situation. Goal is easy to see.

"When one very good player stays with that confidence and [is] winning so many matches, the season is probably impossible to repeat. Accept that, accept the challenge. And work."

Fed's fantastic finish: After losing to Djokovic at the U.S. Open, Federer won 17 straight matches. He went 2-0 against Australia in Davis Cup, then won titles in Basel, Paris and London -- regaining his No. 3 ranking from Andy Murray in the process.

Federer has been the No. 1-ranked player for 285 weeks over the course of his career -- one shy of Pete Sampras' all-time record.

"Who knows? Maybe one day I'll get there," he told the New York Times' Christopher Clarey. "I had to just kind of ignore it at the moment because I know that Novak with his unbelievable year has kind of put that very far from me.

"Then again, all of a sudden you play well and you win 17 matches in a row and you're back where at least you feel if you win a Slam or something, you're right in the conversation again. So that's interesting and that excites me."

Bryan Brothers stand alone together: On Dec. 12, Bob and Mike had been ranked No. 1 in the individual doubles standings for a staggering 271 weeks -- one more than John McEnroe. They finished as the No. 1 year-end doubles team for the seventh time.

"We didn't really look at this record until this year," said Mike Bryan. "Two-hundred and seventy-one weeks is an astronomical number. To achieve this record and surpass John McEnroe, who we've always looked up to, is awesome."

2011 matches we won't forget:

Federer led Djokovic two sets to none in their U.S. Open semifinal match and then ... disappeared. Federer, who held two match points, lost 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.

The shot of the season: Down 3-5 and 15-40 in the fifth set, Djokovic took a match point off the board with a ludicrous crosscourt forehand service return winner.

"I set it up all perfect," Federer lamented. "I couldn't finish it. He snaps one shot, and the whole thing changes. It's strange how it goes. I would be in the finals with a chance to win the title.

"Some players grow up and play like that. I never played that way. I believe that [the] hard work's going to pay off. This is very hard for me to understand how you can play that shot on match point."

A championship heart: The pressure of a perfect start to the season seemed to catch up with Djokovic in the Miami final. Nadal, the world No. 1, won the first set and seemed poised to score a decisive win.

Djokovic rallied and won the match in a tiebreaker, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), and pounded his chest after the 3-hour, 21-minute match.

"It was one of the best finals I ever played in my life," Djokovic said. "It's incredible to beat the No. 1 player of the world in a tiebreaker."

Marathon men: The match featured two of tennis' gutsiest players, and it would stretch across the mind-numbing boundaries of 4 hours, 48 minutes.

Ultimately, David Nalbandian prevailed over Hewitt in their first-round match at the Australian Open 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (1), 9-7. Hewitt held two match points in the fourth set but squandered them.

"It was the kind of match that nobody can forget," Nalbandian said. "We both fought until the very end."

Cracks in the armor: Before this year's Wimbledon quarterfinals, Federer had won each and every one of the 178 best-of-five Grand Slam matches after he won the first two sets.

But this time he lost to a hard-serving Frenchman, Tsonga, who prevailed 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

"It was just amazing," Tsonga said. "I played unbelievable. Everything was in. I was two sets down, and I broke. I did a good game of return, and after that, it was just amazing. I served unbelievable."

Closing out the closer: Murray was serving for the match and, on four occasions, found himself two points from beating Djokovic in their Rome semifinal.

Somehow, Djokovic converted a third break point and, after Murray double-faulted, won the thrilling match 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (2).

"I'm one of the best closers in tennis," Murray said, "and I very rarely, especially against the best players, lose matches when serving."

0-for-24 and counting: Murray made the final four of each major -- joined only by Djokovic in that respect -- but he still hasn't broken through with a first Grand Slam singles title. It says here (despite the fact we've believed it would happen sometime in the last three years), he will get No. 1 in 2012.

State of America: Fluid. Mardy Fish, now 30, supplanted Andy Roddick in the top 10, at No. 8. Roddick is at No. 14 and out of the top 10 for first time in a decade, when he was No. 14 as a teenager.

Resurgent John Isner, who was clearly drained in 2010 after that Wimbledon epic, found an equilibrium and is No. 18, followed by No. 34 Alex Bogomolov Jr., who will compete for his native Russia next season.

Donald Young, working harder than ever, is No. 39, ahead of James Blake (No. 59), Ryan Sweeting (No. 72), Ryan Harrison (No. 79) and Sam Querrey (No. 93).

Congratulations to Michael Russell, the "Pocket Rocket." At the age of 33, he finished in the ATP top 100 -- No. 99 -- for the third time in four years. This, after making it in 2001 and missing for the next five years. Looks like he'll be back for more in 2012. He played four Challengers after the U.S. Open.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.