A sensational year in men’s tennis is drawing to a close, which has featured four separate Grand Slam winners and once again been dominated by the big four: Novak Djoković, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.

Champion | Novak Djoković lifts the ATP World Tour Finals trophy at the 02 Arena earlier this month. (Image | Yahoo)

With the ATP World Tour Finals having been won by the Serb earlier this month, it is time to look back on how each of the leading lights performed over the calendar year. It has been quite a 12 months after all.

Novak Djoković

After a record-breaking season last year, it would have been extremely optimistic to expect Djoković to remain at such an auspicious standard.

However, in the early part of the year, it appeared that he may be able to surpass his previous achievements. Particularly when the 25-year-old triumphed at the Australian Open in January, which was arguably the greatest tournament Melbourne has ever seen.

Following an epic semi final victory over Andy Murray, which was of the highest quality, it having taken five sets to separate them over almost five hours, I felt that tennis fans would not see a better match all year.

It took a mere two days for the Djoker to prove me wrong, as with just a day’s rest, he somehow roused his weary limbs to outplay Nadal over a match that lasted six exhausting hours.

At times it appeared as though both men were no longer playing tennis, but were instead on a symbiotic torture rack. In fact it was the Spaniard, normally seen as the “iron man” of the sport, who caved first.

Djoković fell to the ground as he won on match point, before tearing his shirt open in sheer delight. Both men could barely stand at the trophy presentation. It was a contest that now enters the conversation whenever the greatest match ever played is talked about.

Exhausted | Djoković collapses to the floor after beating Rafael Nadal in a five set, five-hour long thriller in the Australian Open final. (Image | The Telegraph)

Yet rather than act as a springboard to further dominance for Djoković, his extraordinary win Down Under dulled his brilliance: not by much, but just enough. In 2011 what set Djoković apart was his temperament on crucial points. In the clutch moments, he was always on the right side of the result.

Post-Melbourne, however, Djoković was beginning to lose matches that he had been winning a year previously. While remaining a presence in the latter stages of every tournament he competed in, Djoković was beaten in the French Open final by Nadal, lost the semis at Wimbledon to Federer and came off on the wrong side of another five-setter against Murray at Flushing Meadows in the US Open.

What is telling is that Murray’s victory was partly due to physical conditioning, and Djoković was hampered by cramp in the final set. That said, he was undoubtedly the most consistent player of the year, and looked to have got his groove back as the season drew to a close.

Djoković won twice in China and showed his powers of recovery to defeat Federer in the season ending ATP World Tour Finals, pictured. It had seemed that the success Djoković was able to achieve at Melbourne Park came at a cost, as his cloak of invincibility began to fray at the edges.

However, as he showed in London a few weeks ago, Nole remains the man to beat with the 2013 season fast approaching.

Roger Federer

Since being dethroned as tennis’ number one man by Nadal in that epic Wimbledon final in 2008, Federer has occupied a similar place in the sporting spectrum to Sir Alex Ferguson: a venerable, respected institution that is habitually written off only to prove that, in the words of the great Richard Pryor, “I ain’t dead yet, mother******”.

Now 31-years-old, the Swiss legend is more circumspect in the tournaments in which he competes. He has been honest that world ranking points are no longer a priority for him.

It is titles that matter most to the Fed Express now. Federer seems to have become reconciled with the fact that he will no longer be the undisputed king of the sport, but that does not have to preclude him from remaining a champion performer.

Contrast | While Roger Federer holds his seventh Wimbledon trophy aloft, Andy Murray is disconsolate on Centre Court after losing the final this summer. (Image | CS Monitor)

In his brilliant display to defeat Murray in the final of Wimbledon, it made the Swiss arguably the greatest player in the history of the All England Club. It was his seventh title in SW19, which puts Federer level with Pete Sampras‘ record.

Federer still manages to keep himself in remarkable shape, negotiating his career without ever suffering a serious injury, at least to date. For an individual who once seemed to be the pre-eminent player in the game as a matter of course, his mental malleability at not allowing the likes of Djoković, Murray and Nadal to derail his career should be applauded.

He has accepted and adapted. While not always the prevailing force in the game he once was, Federer still has the ability to beat anyone, and you certainly will not find me writing him off. Federer is not done yet.

Andy Murray

“I’m getting closer” were the first tearful words uttered by Murray following his defeat in the Wimbledon final this summer. It was a comment laced with wry humour, but that made it no less accurate. As the year progressed, the Scot was inching ever closer to his goal of becoming a Grand Slam champion.

He may have been second best to Djoković in Australia, but unlike previous high-profile losses, it was through no fault of his own.

Murray claimed the first set against Federer on Centre Court, breaking his duck in Open finals, before annihilating the Swiss a few weeks later in winning Olympic gold. He then finally managed to avoid the unwanted record of being the first man to lose his first five Grand Slam finals with a win across the Pond.

His victory over Djoković at the US Open was no fluke. Murray not only demonstrated his quality in taking the first two sets and displayed his resilience to resist the Serb’s comeback, but he also put his improved fitness on show to outlast Djoković.

In the closing stages of the match it was not Murray who ran out of gas, but his opponent. This says a lot as in the embryonic stages of his career, Murray once hit the wall so severely that he vomited on the court at Flushing Meadows.

Masterminds | Coach Ivan Lendl and Murray talk strategy ahead of a year in which the Scot finally won his first Grand Slam. (Image | The Guardian)

The final piece of the puzzle appears to have been Murray appointing Ivan Lendl as his coach. This could have been disastrous, but has proven to be an inspired choice.

The unfussy attitude that Lendl has towards the game, and his pedigree as a former player looks to have helped to rid the Scot of the peccadilloes that prevented him breaking the glass ceiling to success.

While still primarily a counter-attacking player, Murray is now more at ease with taking the initiative against opponents, and has improved markedly in his mentality.

We see less of the visceral outbursts of self-loathing that used to blight his game. The 25-year-old now focuses more intently on the next point, instead of lambasting himself over the previous one which had gone away.

Despite the year he had, it seems that Murray remains an acquired taste with a large proportion of the British public. You will hear a variety of spurious reasons for this, but the crux of the issue appears to be that Murray has committed the unforgivable crime of not demanding our love.

In a society which near-deifies celebrity, we expect them to court our popularity while giving them our fealty in return. Rather like Lendl, this is a sad game that Murray is unprepared to play.

He does not seek to be disliked, but nor does Murray reach out with the intention of making people love him. The cream of Britain’s sporting talent will be in Manchester next month for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards.

Meanwhile, Murray will be in America to begin his training regime for the coming year. He does not require fame, or the love of strangers. What he seeks is a greater currency: trophies.

Rafael Nadal

The past 12 months have been largely frustrating for the man from Majorca. While ever graceful in defeat, Nadal’s heartbreak at the Australian Open hurt him.

It is not difficult to see why: could you imagine producing your very best and still failing to win? Well, Nadal did not have to imagine this unthinkable scenario, because it happened to him in 2012.

In the same way that he became a constant thorn in the side of Federer, Djoković began to have a similar effect on Rafa. All those close matches that he used to win started to slip away from him. More often that not, he was losing to Djoković.

This is why Nadal’s victory at the French Open could prove to be the most significant of his career. The tournament was blighted by persistent downpours, forcing it to finish a day late.

Euphoric | Nadal shows his joy and relief at defending his “home” turf of Roland Garros to win the French Open. (Image | Sky Sports)

In the final between Nadal and Djoković, there were periodic rain delays which seemed to affect the Spaniard, who was briefly on the back foot. For the first time in his career, fans witnessed open dissent from Nadal.

He bemoaned the conditions and was not far from demanding that the match be delayed until Monday. Eventually getting his wish, Nadal came out rejuvenated, and managed to pick up an incredible seventh French Open crown.

The relevance of this should not be underestimated. It was bad enough for Nadal to lose his place at the top of the game to Djoković, but to surrender at Roland Garros? Unthinkable.

The venue has always been Rafa’s personal fiefdom, and it was important for his peace of mind that he held onto his supremacy in France.

However, Nadal’s year took a severe blow a few weeks later – from an unexpected source. In a huge shock, he was knocked out of Wimbledon in the second round by big-serving Lukas Rosol.

It was an inspired performance from the Czech player, but knee problems hampered Nadal in this match, the same difficulties that have blighted his career. Following this defeat, Nadal did not play again this year, suffering from tendinitis.

The all-action style of play Nadal has chosen has always led many to fear for his longevity in the sport. Sadly, it appears as though these fears may be well founded.

The 26-year-old is expected to return to court in 2013, but how strong will he be? While it would be a huge loss for tennis if a less effective Nadal were to return, by the same token it would be a medical miracle if he came back at the same level at which he briefly departed.

I dearly hope I am wrong, but the “iron man” looks to be on borrowed time at the pinnacle of the sport.

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