By Abhishek Mehrotra
Tennis fans could not have asked for a better climax to the season as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic played out a dazzling final under the lights inside O2 Arena. Ultimately, it was Djokovic who won 7-6 7-5 to celebrate finishing a second successive season on top with his second Finals win.
Although Federer would have been disappointed with his loss, especially after taking the lead in both sets, and holding two set points in the second - it was a superb year for the Swiss as well.
He won his first Grand Slam, Wimbledon, in more than two years, and held the number one ranking long enough to pass Pete Sampras' record of 286 weeks at the top, ultimately reaching 302 before being overtaken by Djokovic.
2012 saw four different Grand Slam champions on the men's side including a breakthrough US Open win for Andy Murray. There was also a maiden ATP 1000 Masters triumph for David Ferrer while Juan Martin del Potro returned to the top echelon and there were consistent, if not dazzling, performances from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic.
In the first of two parts we rate the top five players.
[x] denotes 2011 year-end ranking.
1 Novak Djokovic  - 9.5 (12,920)
Grand Slam Titles (1): Australian Open
ATP Masters 1000 Titles (3): Miami, Toronto, Shanghai
Others (2): Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, Beijing
Djokovic still has a long way to go before he can be considered one of the best of all time. But can we all agree that the Serbian is the best back-to-the-wall player the game has ever seen?
After startling US Open triumphs over Federer in 2010 and 2011, three of his five biggest triumphs this year came when he was staring defeat in the face. Djokovic beat Nadal in the Australian Open final after being down 4-2 in the final set. He then saved four match points against Murray in Shanghai before bouncing back to beat Federer in London.
No matter who the opponent is, the man will just not go away.
Djokovic was never going to replicate his coruscating 2011 season when he won three Slams en route to 10 titles in the year. However, when you consider this year without the baggage of the previous one, it would be churlish to complain. Three major and six Masters finals as well as an unbeaten run in London. There is not one person in the world who wouldn't be happy with that.
2 Roger Federer  - 9 (10,265)
Grand Slams Titles: (1): Wimbledon
ATP Masters 1000 Titles (3): Indian Wells, Madrid, Cincinnati
Others (2): Rotterdam, Dubai
In 2012, 30-year-old Andy Roddick announced his retirement from the game. 32-year-old Juan Carlos Ferrero followed suit. Meanwhile, 31-year-old Roger Federer won Wimbledon and reclaimed the world number one ranking.
Djokovic refuses to go away in the big matches. Federer simply refuses to go away. Every time there are whispers of the magic waning, the Swiss finds a way to confound his critics.
His stunning end-of-season run in 2011 salvaged what had been an ordinary year for him. His victory at Wimbledon this year - during which he beat Djokovic and Murray in successive matches - silenced those who claimed he could no longer string together seven wins. Breaking Sampras' record muzzled others who predicted he would never again ascend to the summit.
In short, there was no scarcity of good news for Federer fans. The better news? The Swiss has promised to return refreshed and recharged for the 2013 season.
3 Andy Murray  - 9 (8,000)
Grand Slam titles (1): US Open
Others: London 2012 Olympics Men's Singles Gold, Brisbane
It all began at Wimbledon for Andy Murray. The tears that streamed down his face as Roger Federer hoisted the trophy for a seventh time finally dissolved the wall of indifference that had until then separated the Brit from the nation's public.
The bond intensified when Murray beat the same opponent at the same venue a month later to clinch gold for Great Britain in the men's singles at the London 2012 Olympics. The 25-year-old's golden summer culminated on the other side of the Atlantic, where he beat Djokovic in the US Open final to win his maiden Grand Slam.
The season did not end of the same high though. Thrice Murray grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory, letting match points slip against Milos Raonic, Djokovic and Jerzy Janowicz in Tokyo, Shanghai and Paris before falling prey to a dazzling Federer in London.
Nonetheless, this was the year Murray leashed the demons within and without when a lesser player would have given up. For that, he deserves big props and so does Ivan Lendl. There's much to look forward to from the Scot next season.
4 Rafael Nadal  - 6 (6,795)
Grand Slam Titles (1): French Open
ATP Masters 1000 Titles (2): Monte-Carlo, Rome
Remarkably, Rafa managed to hold on to fourth place despite missing more than half the season through injury.
It was a pity thought that he was sidelined just when he seemed to have laid the Djokovic hoodoo to rest. After losing seven successive finals to the world number one, including the longest ever Grand Slam final, at the Australian Open, Nadal at last beat his nemesis in Monte-Carlo before repeating the dose at Roland Garros for his seventh title.
And then came the shock of the season. Few could have predicted it, but Nadal's loss to unknown Lukas Rosol was to be his last match of the season as knee tendinitis took hold, casting serious doubts on Rafa's future in the game.
Thankfully though he seems to be on the mend - and has announced that he should be back in time for the 2013 Australian Open. For despite all the brilliance on display this year, tennis has sorely missed its raging bull.
5 David Ferrer  - 8.5 (6,430)
ATP Masters 1000 (1): Paris
Others (6): Valencia, Acapulco, Auckland, Buenos Aires, Rosmalen, Bastad
Setting out with the determination of a dogged explorer, Ferrer bustled his way through 14 countries on five continents en route to lifting a tour-high seven titles in 2012.
For years, Ferrer has been overshadowed by Nadal, a fairly successful player relegated to the status of a journeyman thanks to the incandescent brilliance of his compatriot. With Nadal ruled out, Ferrer seized his chance - winning a slew of tournaments including his first ATP 1000 level title, the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris.
It would be exaggeration to call this a breakthrough year for Ferrer. He continued to fend off the chasing pack and continued to struggle against the top four - a French Open quarter-final win over Andy Murray his sole success against the quartet this season.
But for churning out the results day in, day out, for not letting his head hang despite knowing he can never truly reach the rarefied levels of the top four - tennis' most anonymous number five of all time finally deserves to be recognised.
Check back for ratings of numbers 6-10 on ESPNSTAR.com on Thursday!