By Daniel Teo
The ‘Joker' meant serious business this year, winning an incredible three Grand Slam titles and five Masters 1000 events en route to being crowned the best player on the planet.
The gruelling season may have taken its toll, with the Serb's form tailing off towards the end of the season, but a 70-6 win-loss (a win percent of 92.1) record will go down in history as one of the finest. Given that it came at a time of incredible depth in men's tennis makes it all the more special.
Then there was Li Na's famous Roland Garros triumph, Sam Stosur's romp to the US Open title as Serena Williams imploded and Roger Federer's stern reminder that he is still around with a late-season surge as other fell by the wayside.
‘Joker' the King
Prior to this year, Djokovic had only one major title under his belt - the Australian Open triumph back in 2008.
But Djokovic meteoric rise to the pinnacle of tennis saw him bring his tally to a total of four as the ‘big two' Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were left in the wake of the Serb's turbo-charged rise to the top.
Federer was the only one to beat the 24-year-old in a major - the Swiss maestro winning in four thrilling sets at the French Open in June.
Having just won the Davis Cup with Serbia, Djokovic started the season brimming with confidence and an other-worldly level of fitness. And it showed in the year's very first Grand Slam, as he raced to the Australian Open title in January, dropping only one set (to Ivan Dodig in the second round) on the way.
Thus began an inexorable rise to the summit of men's tennis. And while Nadal produced a strong statement of intent by winning at Roland Garros, it only delayed the inevitable.
Fittingly, the top two players in the world met in the Wimbledon final a month later and Djokovic confirmed his status as the best player on the planet by sweeping away Nadal with a 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 win.
And he made it three out of four for the year at Flushing Meadows, once again sweeping the Spaniard away, despite sustaining a back injury in the fourth set, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1.
At the time of his US Open triumph, Djokovic had lost only two matches all year - one of them an injury-forced withdrawal against Andy Murray at the Cincinnati Masters.
After New York though, his fitness levels plummeted and by the time the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals rolled around, the Serb was running on fumes. Losses to David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic put paid to his hopes of reaching the knockout stages.
Despite these blows though, 2011 will forever be remembered as the one in which the Joker became the King.
Rise of Li Na
Sporting history was made on June 4, 2011.
Li Na became the first Chinese player, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam singles title by beating defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-4, 7-6 (7/0) at Roland Garros.
Li Na had already served notice of her immense talent by stretching Kim Clijsters to three sets at the Australian Open final in January. And she went one better in Paris - proving that her feat in Melbourne was no fluke.
As she tossed the ball while serving at match point in the final, a cry from a fan in the stands pierced the silence at Court Philippe Chatrier. Distracted, Li stopped and let the ball drop. The words of support were in Mandarin: "Jia you!" - which translates to "Let's go!"
After so many years of "Come on" and "Allez" and "Vamos," there's a new language on the tennis landscape. Li Na has set the standard. Can the rest of Asia follow?
End of Federer? Not quite.
It was not a vintage year for the Swiss master.
For the first time since 2002, Federer failed to win a single Grand Slam in a season - his best finish was reaching the final of the Roland Garros, on ironically his least-favourite surface, where he was convincingly beaten by Nadal.
For the first time, Federer lost in a Grand Slam after being two sets to love up - his Wimbledon quarter-final loss against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga coming after he was leading 6-3 7-6.
And those who thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence were proved wrong just two months later as the Swiss squandered a two set lead yet again - going down to Novak Djokovic in the US Open semis after being 7-6 6-4 up.
There had been some reminders that the 30-year-old still retained some magic - most notably during his four-set win over Djokovic in the French Open semi-final. But to most, the writing was on the wall. Federer was on the decline.
Someone forgot to tell the man himself though. After his stunning loss in New York, Federer embarked on a 17-match unbeaten run which culminated in a record sixth year-ending title with a 6-3 6-7 (6/8) 6-3 victory over his Wimbledon conqueror Tsonga.
The Swiss, who became the tournament's oldest winner, previously held the record jointly with Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl.
It had been a tough year, but Federer - written off by so many - had somehow regained his fire right at the very end.
"It's an amazing feeling. I know it's one of my greatest accomplishments," he said after his London win.
"I couldn't be more happy and I couldn't be more exhausted.
"This definitely is an amazing finish again to the season," he said. "I've never finished so strong.
Players who finish a season strongly tend to start the new one on the front foot (just ask Djokovic) and Federer will be one of the title contenders come Australian Open 2012.
Men's tennis has incredible depth at the moment. That, combined with Federer's advancing years, means his halcyon days are behind him. But as he showed at the O2 arena, the man from Basel is not quite ready to hang up his racket yet.
What next for Nadal?
2010 had been Nadal's watershed year, one in which he lifted three Grand Slam titles, including that elusive US Open. And although it was not quite a case of "from annus mirabilis to annus horribilis" for the Spaniard, 2011 was a far cry from the highs of the previous year.
Nadal did win the French Open, handing Federer his fourth defeat in a Roland Garros final, but failed to solve the Djokovic conundrum all year long. Five times the duo met in a final, thrice in Masters' finals and twice in Grand Slams. Five times Nadal lost. From Rome to Madrid, from London to New York - Djokovic had his rival's number.
By the end of it all, Nadal, bruised in body and spirit, was forced to pull out of the Paris Masters and then subsided without a trace against old rival Federer at the ATP World Tour Finals in London (It must be noted that he enjoyed an overall record of 3-1 against Federer in 2011 though). He failed to make the last four of the tournament.
There was an uplift in December when he led Spain to another Davis Cup triumph. On the whole though, Nadal would admit this was a disappointing follow-up to his marvellous 2010 season. The serve, so integral to his success in that year, seemed to have lost its bite while the backhand - such a capable back-up to his blazing forehand, failed to cause many dents - especially against Djokovic.
Here's hoping the off-season will allow the Spaniard to recharge, rethink his strategies and come back like the Nadal of old when the Australian Open beckons.
Is tennis' next big thing here?
Next generation might be a bit too strong, given that of the current crop of stars, only Federer is anywhere near retirement.
But in Bernard Tomic, tennis might just have glimpsed its future. He didn't do anything special in 2011, but there was enough evidence on display to suggest that the Australian might soon start challenging the top guns on a regular basis.
Tomic came up against two of them at this year's Grand Slams, losing to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open and Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. He caused problems for both men, particularly Djokovic at SW19 where he became the youngest player since Boris Becker to enter the quarter-finals. The Australian possesses a smooth all-round game and is looking to break into the top 20 in 2012.
"I think if I have a good year, I can make the Top 20-that's my goal. Definitely serve and volley, I need to improve that so that I can come in and win a lot of points at the net, and to improve my speed."
The 19-year-old rocketed up from 208 to 41 in the ATP rankings this year. Bridging those 21 more places will be far harder, but it would be great news for the game if he could. And being able to watch some serve-and-volley wouldn't be too bad either.
Another player to watch out for is Milos Raonic - a 20-year-old from Canada.
Bite-sized Highlights of 2011
Match of the Year: Roger Federer vs Novak Djokovic, French Open semi-final. Four sets of sublime tennis that ended with the Swiss ending Djokovic's 42-match unbeaten run with a 7-6 (7/5) 6-3 3-6 7-6 (7/5) win.
Shot of the Year: Novak Djokovic's TNT-laden forehand crosscourt return winner when facing match-point against Roger Federer, US Open semi-final. Djokovic won 6-7 (7/9) 4-6 6-3 6-2 7-5 in yet another unbelievable encounter between the two.
Comeback Kid of the Year: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's return from the dead against Roger Federer after being down two sets to love, Wimbledon quarter-final. The Frenchman
Comeback Geriatric of the Year: Thomas Muster. Two tournaments, two straight-sets defeats and it's back into retirement for the 45-year-old former French Open winner.
Nearly Man of the Year: Andy Murray. One Grand Slam final, three semi-finals. Still no cigar for the Brit.
Predictable Outcome of the Year: Yet another French Open. Yet another title for Rafael Nadal. He just goes on and on and on.
Rant of the Year 1: Serena Williams' verbal barrage at Greek official Eva Asderaki during the US Open final against Samantha Stosur.
Rant of the Year 2: Andy Roddick let his frustration show during the US Open fourth-round match against David Ferrer after the heavy rain so saturated the court that water kept bubbling out of it!
Fond Farwell of the Year: Justine Henin's injury-forced retirement after the Australian Open left a big void in women's tennis. The small champion with the huge backhand will be sorely missed.
Bad sportsmanship of the Year: It was a case of brazen dishonesty from Philipp Petzschner during the US Open doubles' final. Marcin Matkowski's volley hit the German's shin and bounced back into the opponents' court for a winner.
The chair umpire didn't see it and Petzschner himself claimed it had gone off the racket when replays showed otherwise. Petzschner and partner Jurgen Melzer went on to claim the title. Justice is not always served.
ESPNSTAR.com's Top 5 Tennis Editorials from 2011