Novak Djokovic validates top ranking

It was an odd but gratifying season in men's tennis.

Ten months ago, Novak Djokovic won a spectacular, nearly six-hour Australian Open final for his third consecutive Grand Slam title, then fell just short of a fourth at Roland Garros. He reached three of the four major finals and finishes as the No. 1-ranked player for the second straight year. And yet, you can make a plausible case that Roger Federer and Andy Murray were nearly as impressive in 2012.

Federer, at the age of 31, found himself again ranked as the No. 1 player -- something many people thought would never happen. The title at Wimbledon was his 17th Grand Slam singles victory, extending his all-time record.

Murray? All he did was break through and win the Olympic gold medal at home at Wimbledon, then his first Grand Slam singles title at the U.S. Open.

Parity, apparently, is no longer in the sole possession of the National Football League. And going forward -- if Rafael Nadal's knees allow him to return to full force -- the next few years should produce some heady stuff.

Djokovic produced brilliant bookends to the season in London, beating Federer 7-6 (6), 7-5 Monday in the Barclay's ATP World Tour Finals.

Just when it looked like Federer might extend the match to three sets, Djokovic closed quickly on the Swiss champion, erasing two set points. Match point was his when he produced a deft, sliding backhand pass for the last shot of the year. He flew from the baseline, his arms held in the position of wings, and screamed with delight in the direction of his team.

"Roger," Djokovic said in the trophy ceremony, "we pushed each other to the maximum today. It's always a pleasure to play you."

It was the second year-end title for the 25-year-old Serb; Djokovic won four years ago in the Shanghai final over Nikolay Davydenko.

And so, the ATP World Tour Player of the Year award goes to … Djokovic, based on his consistency from beginning to end. In addition to being the only man to reach three of the four major finals, Djokovic also won three Masters 1000 titles, in Miami, Toronto and Shanghai.

"Amazing tournament, amazing year, amazing match," Federer said of Djokovic. "I can't play much better than I did today."

Federer will be disappointed with this result (he seemed exceedingly glum afterward), but not his season. After winning the 2010 Australian Open, Federer went 0-for-9 in majors before hoisting his seventh Wimbledon title.

Some perspective: Federer was playing in his eighth year-end final -- against an eighth different opponent. Consider the breadth and depth of Federer's six year-end titles: 2003 (defeating Andre Agassi), 2004 (Lleyton Hewitt), 2006 (James Blake), 2007 (David Ferrer), 2010 (Rafael Nadal) and 2011 (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga).

Standing in the hallway, awaiting the call to enter the jam-packed arena, Federer looked like a coiled snake. His body language was relaxed, but his look was grim and determined, even as he walked out holding the hand of a young girl.

The first blow of the season's last match was a 123 mph ace down the middle and Federer went on to win the first nine points. The Swiss champion played freely and ferociously at times.

Federer, always a fussy player, a perfectionist, is at his best indoors. There is no wind to alter the ball's trajectory and the low-bouncing balls are to Federer's liking. His serve is lethal when there are no forces of nature to blow it off course. Which is why Djokovic had won only one of their four previous matches indoors.

Djokovic, trailing 0-3, started producing more diversity to take Federer out of his comfort zone. At 4-all, he converted a third break point when Federer took an uncharacteristically hasty swipe at a forehand and it found the net. Naturally, Federer coolly saved a set point at 5-6 and forced a first-set tiebreaker.

It produced some wonderful moments. At 5-6, Federer saved his second set point when he hit a lunging forehand stab and, after Djokovic slipped the return past him, ran it down with a running, twisting, cross-court winner.

But at 6-all, Federer tried a too-aggressive backhand down the line that was well long and Djokovic converted his third set point with a big serve and an easy winner into the open court.

This was ominous for Federer because in 24 of 28 previous matches between them, the winner of the first set won the match. And Federer had never, ever beaten Djokovic after losing the first set -- now a disturbing string of 0–for-9.

Federer broke Djokovic to open second set, but Djokovic -- facing two set points -- got himself even with a break for 5-all. Federer missed a pair of overheated forehands when it mattered most. That was all the wiggle room Djokovic needed.

Afterward, Djokovic addressed his team.

"It's been a fantastic season," he said. "We couldn't start and finish the season in a better way."

And with that, Djokovic will take a long, well-deserved respite before heading to Australia, where the daunting quest of duplicating another stellar year begins.