Novak Djokovic is about to find out what it takes to follow up on a nearly unbeatable season.
The 24-year-old Serb won three of the four Grand Slams titles, lifted seven other trophies and wrested the No. 1 ranking from Rafael Nadal. His 70-6 record included a staggering 41-match winning streak to begin the season.
“It was incredible,” Djokovic said. “I made so many wins in a row that I really didn't count any more. I was just trying to play one match at the time and trying to think how long the streak will go on, not when it will end.”
Djokovic eventually fell one short of matching John McEnroe's record of 42 straight wins to begin the 1985 season. Despite that, the American great said the tougher competition and greater athleticism in today's game made the Serb's feat “more impressive.”
The run also included four wins over Nadal, all in finals. Two of them came on the Spaniard's favourite clay surface.
Djokovic, who won the Australian Open early in the season, finally lost in June when Roger Federer prevailed in the French Open semifinals. But the Serb quickly picked himself up and swept the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.
In New York, Federer seemed certain to repeat his Roland Garros success. He held two match points on serve in the fifth set of their semifinal match, but Djokovic saved both — the first with a blistering forehand return winner that was one of the year's most memorable moments.
It was also the perfect demonstration of the belief that Djokovic says was the key to his dramatic improvement in 2011 after a three-year gap since his first Grand Slam title in 2008.
“The truth is that this year, mentally I am more mature and a stronger player,” he said. “I believe on the court more in my qualities, more that I can win against Federer and Nadal and all the top players.”
While Djokovic's confidence soared, Nadal's seemed to drain away a little more with each loss.
His three titles for the season was his worst haul since 2004, and after months of complaining about the hectic calendar, Nadal left the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals stating that he had a “little bit less passion for the game.”
Spain's Davis Cup win — their fifth since 2000 — at least provided a silver lining to a difficult season, but Nadal said dropping the team competition from his schedule in 2012 would be part of his mission to turn around his fortunes.
“My goal is always the same, be a better player in 2012 than I was in 2011,” Nadal said.
It was also a breakthrough year for Canadian Milos Raonic on the ATP Tour, as he captured his first title at the SAP Open in San Jose in February and reached a career-high of No. 25 in the world rankings on May 2.
The hard-serving 20-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., became Canada's highest-ever ranked male singles player in February after reaching No. 37, besting Greg Rusedski's former record of No. 41.
Despite suffering an injury at Wimbledon that derailed part of his season, Raonic was honoured at the ATP finals in London as the Tour's newcomer of the year.
Djokovic's phenomenal season, meanwhile, finally took its toll on his body — four of his six losses for the year came after the U.S. Open — and it wasn't Nadal who took advantage but Federer and Andy Murray.
Murray, who spent the whole season in the top four but still ended it without a first Grand Slam, won three straight titles in Asia while Federer ended the season with a 17-match winning streak which culminated in a record sixth title at the year-end championships in London.
“To win Grand Slams would be nice,” Federer said of his aim for 2012. “I feel like it might be around the corner.”
The 16-time Grand Slam champion went through a season without a major for the first time since 2002. The failure of women's No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki to capture one of the big four tournaments was another of the season's talking points.
The 21-year-old Dane, whose boyfriend Rory McIlroy won his first golf major in 2011, finished the year as the top-ranked player thanks to six WTA Tour titles even though she didn't even reach a single Grand Slam final.
It was Petra Kvitova who was named player of the year after a breakthrough season in which she won Wimbledon, led the Czech Republic to the Fed Cup title and triumphed at the season-ending WTA Tour Championships.
“This season has been simply a dream,” the 21-year-old Czech said.
Kim Clijsters won her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, while Li Na of China won her first at the French Open to become Asia's first major singles champion.
Despite a slump in form after Roland Garros, the 29-year-old Li was listed by Forbes as the eighth highest-earning female athlete in the world in July. As China's most successful sporting export, she is expected to top that list in 2012.
For Serena Williams, a 13-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1, being on court at all was an achievement in itself after life-threatening blood clots on her lungs.
She returned after nearly a year away in June with what she called a “new perspective on life,” but the 30-year-old American showed she had lost none of her fierce competitive spirit when she clashed with the umpire during the U.S. Open final, calling her “a hater” and “unattractive inside.”
Vancouver's Rebecca Marino made strides this year with several career milestones. She reached her first WTA final, advanced to the third round at the French Open, and hit a high of No. 38 on the WTA rankings.
Sam Stosur of Australia won the match for her first Grand Slam win, but Williams claimed many of the headlines.
Williams shut down her season after that and her form will be under scrutiny when the Australian Open begins on Jan. 16. Sister Venus, meanwhile, played in only four tournaments and is recovering from the immune system disease Sjogren's syndrome, which can cause fatigue and joint pain.
On the men's side, Djokovic will defend the first of 10 titles in Australia believing that lightning can strike twice.
“This year's success gives me reason to believe that I can do it again,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Barbara Surk in Dubai contributed to this report.