by Pete Bodo
We aren't even into the third week of December yet, and I've already had it with "best of" lists for 2011. Do I give a rip about some movie critic's list of the 10 best movies of the year, especially when I know nothing can touch Puss in Boots? (Sorry, all you Quentin Tarantino and Gaspar Noe fans)? Or the 10 Best New Flavored Vodkas? Or the 10 Best Liars in Congress? Actually, a part of me is far more fascinated by the 10 Worst anythings, not least because there's almost always something terribly funny about truly bad ideas, products, movies, sporting events, et al.
This was a particularly good year for "worst of" matches on the ATP, mainly because Novak Djokovic was so busy obliterating even his fiercest rivals through most of 2011. So let's take a look at five of the most deeply disappointing matches of 2011, trying to pick meaningful ones, or those that featured marquee players. These were the matches that may have led you to remark, had you been there: "I got these tickets from my department head at work, but I can still think of about 15 better ways to have spent this afternoon. . ."
Okay, nobody knew at the start of the year just how tough Djokovic would be in 2011; had they any idea, they might have been less inclined to throw cheese doodles at the television, or return that long-neglected phone call to an irritating in-law while the match was still going on. But this was a legitimate stinker.
The strange thing was that Murray didn't even drop a set in the tournament until he was well into his quarterfinal match with Alexandr Dolgopolov. Given that we all labored under the impression that this was still the "old" Djokovic (the one who, at any moment, might come down with some mysterious respiratory ailment, or just plain run out of steam), Murray's downhill slide through the final could almost be called majestic. Rarely has a legitimate contender looked so out of his league, so much like a game but obviously inadequate "battler," or amateur—a type easily conjured up by Murray, what with those ankle braces, that pasty complexion, the woeful colors they dress him in, the generally slovenly appearance—and let's not forget his tendency to freak out in a way that's neither charming nor particularly menacing.
One generally overlooked factor might have contributed to Murray's ragged play: In the semis, Murray had overcome David Ferrer. The match went "only" four sets, but two of them were tiebreakers, and Ferrer's grinding, war-of-attrition style forced Murray to stay on court for just 14 minutes shy of four hours. Murray just had to be stiff and sore for the final, despite the day of rest.
By the end, though, when Murray cried during the presentation ceremony, all you could think was, "Poor guy, he's in wa-a-a-a-a-y over his head. . ."
And it turned out that in 2011, just about everyone else who met Djokovic until mid-September was as well.
Miami Masters semifinal: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer, 6-3, 6-2
Federer got off to a great start in 2011. He won Doha, then made the semis at the Australian Open (l. to Djokovic). He was also in the final of Dubai and semifinals Indian Wells (l. to Djokovic at both), by which time it was becoming clear that something special was going on with Djokovic.
By contrast, Nadal didn't seem quite dialed in. He lost to Nikolay Davydenko at Doha. At the Australian Open, Nadal was cut down to size by Ferrer, his countryman. No shame in that, until you factor in that Nadal was 11-3 against Ferrer in previous matches. And Nadal was coming off a final-round loss at Indian Wells—to Djokovic.
Clearly, Djokovic had interrupted something that most fans and pundits considered rare and special—the Nadal v. Federer rivalry. So what if they would have to renew it in the semis, with the winner thrown to the new lion, Djokovic? The atmosphere in the stadium at Crandon Park was electric, the air of anticipation palpable as the players took the court.
Well, the match was an enormous disappointment, mainly because Federer basically didn't show up. It was just one of those nights. He appeared sluggish, indifferent, almost peevish. At times, it looked as if the Swiss icon was lost in his own private Idaho, far from sultry Miami. Federer had just two break points in the match; Nadal swept both of them aside. Nadal had five break points and converted four. Federer won just 17 percent of his first-serve return points (compared to Nadal's 42 percent) and only 36 percent of his second-serve return points (Nadal won 52 percent).
The result: a cringe-inducing beatdown that led to Federer-bashing which would last until the semis of the French Open, where Federer finally ended Djokovic's winning streak.
Bastad, semifinal: Robin Soderling d. Tomas Berdych, 6-1, 6-0
At the time, Soderling was No. 5 and Berdych No. 7, and the two big men had played a brutal, exhausting, five-set semifinal at Roland Garros in their most recent meeting (in 2010, won by Soderling). So the stage was set for a competitive feast, but it just didn't work out that way.
Soderling blasted his way to 11 break points, converting five. Meanwhile, Berdych was unable to convert even one of his four break points. It was a 71-minute match, and ugly—but not in the way everyone expected. The takeaway: you don't want to mess with Soderling on his home turf. File that away, Davis Cup captains of the world.
U.S. Open, second round: Marin Cilic d. Bernard Tomic, 6-1, 6-0, 6-2
Tomic officially became the "next big thing" at Wimbledon just two months before the U.S. Open. He had ousted Davydenko and Soderling in straight sets on the grass, and he took the first set off the utterly dominant Djokovic in the quarterfinals before his breakout run ended.
By contrast, Cilic was a "former next big thing"—a rangy, raw-boned, punishing, heavy hitter who was supposed to take his place alongside the likes of Juan Martin del Potro, Soderling, and Berdych to challenge the ruling order. But Cilic became surprisingly inconsistent; his game was all over the map and he ranked just No. 28 at the U.S. Open. With his crafty, touch-based game, Tomic was expected by many to give Cilic all he could handle, and take another giant step toward the big time.
In a best-of-five laughter that lasted all of 80 minutes, Cilic pounded Tomic into the ground as if he were a mere tent stake. Cilic won an amazing 72 percent of his second-serve return points, and he broke the 18-year old Aussie eight times—even though Tomic was actually three percentage points better in the first-serve conversion department, 56 to 53 percent. By the end, Aussie fans were in less need of Tomic than a strong tonic.
Nadal losing a third and decisive set 6-0? That's stop-the-presses news, although it couldn't have been all that riveting for the Japanese fans assembled to watch what had shaped up, at least on paper, as a competitive final.
Nadal had gotten the best of Murray in the semis of the previous three Grand Slam events, and was reasonably rested, having played just two Davis Cup matches since the U.S. Open final. Nadal had won those in straight sets, at home, against Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, giving up a grand total of 10 games in those blowouts.
But Nadal had a history of tailing off in the fall, and like everyone else he was still reeling from the way Djokovic had come to dominate the tour. Among other things, the Serb had snatched away Nadal's No. 1 ranking. As well, Murray was on a hot streak, having lost just one match since the Cincinnati Masters way back in August, and he had just won Bangkok.
So what happened? In that third, bagel set, Murray happened to play what he would later describe as the best set he's ever played against Nadal. He allowed Nadal just four—that's right, four—points in the set, leading Nadal to shrug and explain it all with one word: "unbelievable." The win improved Murray's match record to 21-1 since the start of Cincy, and he would add seven more wins before Berdych ended his streak at the Paris Masters.
You know what they say—what goes around, comes around. It was a very different Andy Murray at the end of the year than at the beginning, way back in Melbourne Park.