At the Net: Djokovic was the best, again

It's not easy to say who was the best player on the ATP World Tour in 2012. But if I had to say, I'd say it was Novak Djokovic.

For the second year in a row, the entertaining Serbian star finished as the year-end No. 1, becoming the first man to do that since Roger Federer in 2007 when the incredible Swiss sat atop the rankings for a fourth straight year.

Last year, Djokovic reached three of the four Grand Slam finals, and won all three. This year, he captured only one major title, but, just like last year, he landed in three of the four Grand Slam finals -- the Aussie Open, French Open and U.S. Open -- with a victory coming in Melbourne for the third time in five years.

"It's been a very long year, a very long two years, but a very successful two years," Djokovic said. "I didn't really know how I will follow up after incredible 2011, but I believed that I have to use the time where I'm playing the best tennis of my life and I'm winning Grand Slams and finally realize what I need to do to win the major tournaments."

The "Djoker" was a workmanlike 75-12 this year, piling up six championships in 17 tournaments, including three Masters shields. He set a record last year by capturing a jaw-dropping five Masters titles in one season, an amazing season that featured 10 titles in all.

In the 11 events the steady Djokovic didn't win this year, he was a five-time runner-up and a four-time semifinalist.

The 25-year-old captured the Oz Open by outlasting Andy Murray in arguably the best match of the year in a classic five-set semifinal in Melbourne, and topping the great Rafael Nadal in five sets in a war-of-attrition final -- the longest-ever Grand Slam final, at five hours and 53 minutes -- in arguably the other best match of the year. Needless to say, the warriors that are Djokovic and Nadal took some much-needed time off after that Down Under knockdown- dragout.

Djokovic capped his latest brilliant campaign by winning the title at the prestigious season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London, where he handled the defending champion and six-time titlist Federer in straight sets in the final.

"This was my time, my moment, and I needed to step in and really believe in my ability. So throughout the whole season I've had lots of success and had some disappointing losses at big events, in a couple major finals," Djokovic reflected.

The Belgrade native reached the final in four of the six biggest events on the ATP calendar in 2012, winning two of 'em. He also appeared in his first-ever French Open final, where he lost to the "Lord of the Clay" (Nadal), and failed in a bid to best his good friend Murray in the U.S. Open finale.

Somehow, the high-flying Djokovic failed to medal at the London Olympic Games, where he gave way to surging Argentine Juan Martin del Potro in the bronze- medal match on the grass at the venerable All England Club. He did, however, carry the flag for Serbia in the opening ceremony.

Note: Djokovic was also a runner-up at three Masters tournaments this year.

Is Djokovic one of the best of all-time yet? He's gettin' pretty darn close.

The aforementioned Federer proved he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

The sublime Swiss piled up six tour titles of his own and currently rests in fourth place on the men's all-time list, with 76. Only Jimmy Connors (109), Ivan Lendl (94) and John McEnroe (77) boast more titles. Federer tried to tie McEnroe on the titles list two weeks ago, but fell to Djokovic in the ATP Finals finale.

Federer, like Djokovic, was brilliant in 2012, posting a 71-12 record. He returned to the Grand Slam winners' circle for the first time since January 2010 when he came from behind to beat Murray in the Wimbledon final in July. The Swiss hero equaled Pete Sampras' Open-Era record with a seventh title at the storied All England Club.

The 17-time Grand Slam king also reached the gold-medal match in London, where he lost to the British crowd favorite Murray, and the championship round at the Tour Finals, where he succumbed to Djokovic. The Swiss icon added three more Masters titles to his co-record total of 21, a record he shares with Nadal.

The 31-year-old Federer may be past his absolute prime. But having said that, he was No. 1 in the world as recently as three weeks ago and corralled one of the last two major titles of the year with his big win at Wimby.

I'd say he's not a bad No.2 right now.

And how 'bout that Andy Murray!? The Scot became the first British male to reach a Wimbledon final since Bunny Austin back in 1938, but lost to Federer. He bounced right back, however, in a big way only a few weeks later by pasting Federer in the sexy gold-medal affair at the AEC, prompting the biggest celebration at the Club since Virginia Wade captured a Wimbledon women's title there in 1977, or 35 years ago.

The magnificent Murray, however, would enjoy his biggest career highlight at the U.S. Open, where he upset Djokovic in a tremendous final to become the first male British Grand Slam champ since Fred Perry in 1936, or 76 years ago! How sweet it is/was.

The 25-year-old Murray, coached by one of the all-time greats in Ivan Lendl, went 56-16 and settled for only three titles in 2012, but they just happened to be two of the biggest championships on the men's tour, which is certainly in the midst of some more glory days, thanks to the "Big Four" -- Djokovic, Federer, Murray, and Nadal.

Murray also reached a pair of Masters finals this year (losing both).

As for the former world No. 1 Nadal, it wound up being a lost season of sorts, this after rolling out to his typical fantastic start.

The strapping Spaniard wound up shutting it down in June due to a left knee injury, as tender knees have plagued the 11-time Grand Slam champ throughout his illustrious career.

Nadal beat Djokovic in the final at Roland Garros to secure a record seventh French Open title, but only a few weeks later, the powerful southpaw was flat- out shocked by little-known Czech slugger Lukas Rosol in the second round at Wimbledon. As it turned out, Nadal was slowed by the left knee and that Wimbledon stunner wound up being his final match of the year.

The 26-year-old was a stellar 42-6 and settled for four titles in 2012, as his French Open one was joined by two more Masters wins, in Monte Carlo and Rome, where he's won an unstoppable eight straight titles and six-of-eight championships, respectively. He appeared in the first two Grand Slam finals of the year, and his fifth straight overall, losing to Djokovic in Oz and handling Djokovic in Paris before the wheels (or in this case, wheel) came off. The knee problem also prevented Nadal from carrying the flag for Spain in the opening ceremony at the London Games; from competing at the Olympics, where he was the defending gold medalist from 2008; and from playing at the U.S. Open and exclusive Tour Finals.

And the mighty Mallorcan finished outside the Top 2 for the first time since 2004. Yes, he finished 1-or-2 in the world seven straight years before this season.

Did You Know?: In 2012, four different men won a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2003.

There ARE some other guys in the Top 10...and four of 'em are pretty darn good.

Coming in at No. 5 is David Ferrer, who quietly led the tour in match wins (76-15) and titles in 2012, including his first-ever Masters title at the Paris Indoors three weeks ago.

The 30-year-old Spaniard just keeps getting better with age. In addition to the seven titles (in eight finals), he managed to reach at least the quarterfinals at all four majors, including trips into the semifinals at the French and U.S. Opens. And he's appeared in the final four in three of the last eight Grand Slam events. That's pretty consistent for someone who's not in the Big Four.

Ferrer enjoyed a second straight and third overall year-end Top-5 finish and led Spain into a second straight Davis Cup final, where he won both of his singles rubbers in what turned out to be a losing Spanish effort against the host Czech Republic last week in Prague. Ferrer and his fellow Spaniards captured the Davis Cup last year.

World No. 6 Tomas Berdych capped his solid 2012 campaign with a Davis Cup title, the first Davis Cup title for the Czechs since 1980. Berdych failed in an attempt to clinch the title for the Czech Republic when he lost to the gritty Ferrer in the second reverse singles rubber in Prague, but the menacing former Wimbledon runner-up did go 10-1 in his Davis Cup matches this year, including a 6-1 mark in singles. He paired with new national hero Radek Stepanek to go a perfect 4-0 in his D-Cup doubles in '12. It was the cagey Stepanek who clinched the title for the Czechs by winning the fifth and deciding rubber against the defending champion Spaniards by surprising 11th- ranked Nicolas Almagro in four sets, as the soon-to-be-34-year-old became the first man in 100 years over the age of 30 to win a fifth and deciding rubber in a Davis Cup final (James Parke, British Isles, 1912).

The 27-year-old 6-foot-5 Berdych went 61-23 and won a pair of titles, appeared in a Masters final in Madrid, and reached at least the round of eight at half the Slams, including a semifinal showing at the final major of the year in New York.

Your No. 7 star is the 6-foot-7 del Potro. John Martin of the Colt (the English translation of his name) is a former U.S. Open champion who had been trying to relocate his fabulous game after undergoing wrist surgery in 2010.

I'd say he's relocated it.

"DelPo" rolled to a 65-17 ledger and tallied four titles in 2012, including an eye-catching one in Basel, where he upset Federer in the Swiss great's hometown in a remarkable finale at the Swiss Indoors. Del Potro avenged a championship match loss against Federer at an indoor event in Rotterdam earlier in the year. As a matter of fact, DelPo has won two straight against Federer after dropping seven in a row against the Swiss maestro, dating back to last season.

The 24-year-old del Potro appeared in a trio of Grand Slam quarterfinals this year and upset Djokovic in the big-hitting bronze-medal match at the Games.

Note: Del Potro lost to Federer in 4 hours, 26 minutes in the semifinals in the longest-ever Olympic tennis match in August. It was also the longest- ever three-set match in the modern era.

The "Next Four" is rounded out by eighth-ranked Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

The 27-year-old Jo-Willy notched 55 match wins (55-25) and reached four finals this year, including a pair of titles, and played in a French Open quarterfinal and Wimbledon semifinal. As a matter of fact, Tsonga has been at least a quarterfinalist at four of the last six Grand Slam tournaments.

America's best this year was 6-foot-9 North Carolina native "Big" John Isner. "Johnny Tennis" captured titles in Newport and Winston-Salem (in his native Carolina), and was a runner-up at two other events, including a trip into his first-ever Masters final at Indian Wells. Two of his biggest wins of the year actually came in Davis Cup, when she shocked Federer, in Switzerland, on clay, in an opening-round tie, and when he stunned Tsonga, in France, on clay, in a quarterfinal affair.

Isner also stunned Djokovic in a semifinal on the hardcourts at Indian Wells.

Unfortunately for Big John, who led the ATP in aces in 2012 (1,005), the 27- year-old failed to get past the third round at any of the Slams, including a second-round loss at the French and a stunning first-round flameout at Wimbledon. Ouch.

The marathon man, of course, played yet another odyssey of a tennis match this year when he lost to French crowd favorite Paul-Henri Mathieu in 5 hours, 41 minutes, including an 18-16 fifth set, in the second round at the French Open. Isner, as you may know, played in the longest-ever tennis match, period, when he edged out France's Nicolas Mahut in a Wimbledon opening-rounder two years ago. That insane match was played out for more than 11 hours over three days, including a mind-boggling 138-game (70-68) fifth set.

Trivia: Who leads the men's tour with five Grand Slam titles in the 2010s? The answer should come later.

A pair of former No. 1s called it a career in 2012, as Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero rode off into the sunset ... just not together.

Roddick played his final match at the U.S. Open, where the 30-year-old gave way to del Potro in a fourth-round encounter under the lights at Ashe Stadium. The American star captured his lone Grand Slam title at the 2003 U.S. Open by downing Ferrero in the final in Flushing.

The Nebraska native, who was the face of American tennis for a decade, finished with 32 career titles, led the U.S. to a Davis Cup title in 2007, and was a four-time Grand Slam runner-up to the incomparable Federer.

The 32-year-old Ferrero captured the French Open in 2003, was the Roland Garros runner-up in 2002, and lost to Roddick in that '03 U.S. Open finale. The "Mosquito" crossed the finish line with 16 career titles and was a two- time Davis Cup champion with Spain, in 2000 and 2004.

Trivia Answer: Nadal boasts a men's-best five major titles this decade.

Some youngsters to keep an eye on: Canadian Milos Raonic (No. 13), Japan's Kei Nishikori (No. 19), 6-foot-8 Pole Jerzy Janowicz (No. 26), Slovak Martin Klizan (No. 30), and Belgian David Goffin (No. 46).

Here's to another compelling season in 2013!