As the 2011 US Open comes to a close and the season nears its end, we take a look back at all the dramatic, comedic and thrilling moments that we witnessed at each of the Grand Slams. It was a year full of history-making feats and edge-of-your-seat performances on tennis’ four biggest international stages. And as happens at every major, at least one player in both the men’s and women’s draws made unexpected breakout performances, introducing fans to a new player and underdog favorite to follow. This year’s events were no different. Here’s a look at the year in review.
Champions: Novak Djokovic, Kim Clijsters
Perhaps the story of the women’s draw at the 2011 Oz Open was the fourth-round match between Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, which featured a grueling battle of incredible winners, drop shots and thrilling dramatic flair in a third set that lasted 30 games and three hours. Schiavone’s 6-4, 1-6, 16-14 victory was an instant classic, as both players showcased highlight-reel-worthy shot-making and an intense amount of heart and fight.
China’s Li Na also entertained fans with not only her career-best run to the final but also with her refreshing sense of charm, wit and comedic frankness in post-match interviews. She won the hearts of many fans with her candid take on her motivation for semifinal prize money, her husband’s snoring (“I mean, I was wake up every hour, so I say, Stop. I couldn't sleep. I think today he can stay in the bathroom, you know”), and rewarding herself for match wins with her husband’s credit card. Li defeated No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semis, and she was one set away from winning the title, when Kim Clijsters surged back from a set down to claim the Australian Open crown, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, her third major since returning from retirement.
It was also at this tournament that tennis fans caught a glimpse of the early stages of Novak Djokovic’s nearly invincible run in 2011. Having just won the Davis Cup for his country, the Serb entered the season with a tremendous amount of confidence and an other-worldly level of fitness. Djokovic entered the tournament unbeaten in 2011, then continued the streak to storm through the draw like a freight train, dropping only one set en route to his second Australian Open title.
In keeping with Grand Slam tradition, the men’s breakout players of the tournament were Canadian Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov of the Ukraine. The big-serving Raonic had a successful start to 2011, winning his first singles title in San Jose, then followed with a fourth-round appearance Down Under. But it was the scrappy Dolgopolov, armed with a whipping forehand, dogged defense and sneaky slice, who made headlines with wins over former finalist No. 13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 4 Robin Soderling to reach the quarterfinals.
Champions: Rafael Nadal, Li Na
In men’s action, all four top seeds (Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Murray) made the semifinal round, but the notable story here was the end of Djokovic’s 41-match unbeaten streak at the hands of Federer in four sets. Until this point, Djokovic was untouchable, crediting his improved fitness and gluten-free diet as a reason for his record year. But Federer was in top vintage form against the Serb, taking a two-set lead before Djokovic made his presence known and threatened to take control of the match. With Federer holding a 174-0 record in majors after taking a two-set lead, he wasn’t going to waver, and Djokovic was faced with having to accomplish what was nearly impossible. After a countless number of thrilling tennis and exciting exchanges, the Swiss prevailed, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), to meet Nadal in the final.
There, the Spaniard made history by capturing his sixth Roland Garros crown, equaling the record set by Bjorn Borg. This match was by far the best performance conjured up by Federer against Nadal on the red clay, making this final one of the more memorable clashes between the two. Nadal, who practically owned this tournament since he first entered the draw in 2005, narrowly escaped Federer with a 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 victory.
As for the surprise runs of the event, unseeded Italian Fabio Fognini survived a hard-fought road to his career-best quarterfinal round, battling not only leg cramps but also a tough Albert Montanes in an 11-9 fifth-set victory. Fognini won over a number of fans with his never-give-up attitude, but after the victory, the leg cramps were just too much for him, and he had to forego his quarterfinal match against Djokovic.
Li Na continued her success from Down Under by making another run to the French Open final, and this time, she was the last woman standing, topping defending champion Schiavone in straight sets and taking out a resurging Maria Sharapova in the semis. Not a bad tournament for the 29-year-old to win her first clay-court title.
Home-country favorite Marion Bartoli also made a run to the semifinals, eliminating former champion Kuznetsova before falling to Schiavone. Bartoli’s compatriot Gael Monfils made a run of his own, trick-shotting his way to the quarterfinals in classic, flashy Monfils style. The Frenchman pulled out a five-set win over clay-court specialist David Ferrer before falling to eventual finalist Federer.
Champions: Novak Djokovic, Petra Kvitova
Djokovic’s incredible season continued in London, where he won his third major title and took over the No. 1 ranking from Nadal. With a 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 win, Nole stole the show from defending champion Nadal, proving he was indeed the best player in the world. And how does the 2011 Wimbledon champion celebrate his newest title? How else? By eating a chunk of the grass straight from Centre Court. “I don't know why I ate the grass,” he said. “I felt like an animal! I wanted to see how it tastes. It came spontaneously. I didn't plan to do it. I didn't know what to do in all my excitement and joy.”
Making a career breakthrough was young Aussie Bernard Tomic, who pushed Djokovic to four sets in their quarterfinal clash. Mardy Fish, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Feliciano Lopez (or "Deliciano," as opponent Andy Murray’s mother famously nicknamed him) experienced success of their own at Wimby, also reaching the quarters before falling to the top seeds.
Returning to her first Grand Slam since winning 2010 Wimby, Serena Williams had an emotional comeback, crying tears of joy after a three-set first-round win, showing just how much it meant to her to be back on tour and winning again. Williams had been out for nearly a year due to foot injuries, a pulmonary embolism and a hematoma in her stomach.
After top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki fell to Dominika Cibulkova in the round of 16, the quarter was open for former champion Maria Sharapova, who made it to the final. To get there, the Russian had to overcome unseeded Sabine Lisicki in the semifinals, who powered past Marion Bartoli. Also making surprise runs to the quarterfinals were Tamira Paszek and Tsvetana Pironkova, who easily dismissed Venus Williams. But the tournament belonged to big-hitting No. 8 Petra Kvitova, the 21-year-old who dictated points and dismantled Sharapova’s game in 6-3, 6-4 fashion to become the youngest champion to lift the Venus Rosewater dish since Sharapova (at age 17) in 2004.
Champions: Novak Djokovic, Samantha Stosur
By the time the tours made the final stop in Flushing Meadows, it all fell apart for the year’s three women’s Grand Slam champs. Aussie Open winner Kim Clijsters was forced to withdraw due to a stomach muscle injury suffered just weeks before the event. And while French Open champ Li Na and Wimbledon titlist Petra Kvitova came ready to play, neither fared well in first-round matches.
Both fell to Romanian opponents, as No. 53 Simona Halep dispatched No. 6 Li in straight sets, while Kvitova, seeded fifth, met the same fate against No. 48 Alexandra Dulgheru. With Kvitova’s early exit, the third quarter of the draw was up for grabs, and German Angelique Kerber, ranked 92nd, shocked everyone with a surprise run to the semifinals, taking out both Agnieszka Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta before a showdown with Sam Stosur.
Despite a No. 28 seeding, three-time champion Serena Williams returned to top form with a commanding presence, reaching the finals without dropping a set and dominating No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semis. The unstoppable Williams’ final test would be against Stosur, who was bidding for her first Grand Slam title. But it was the go-for-broke Aussie who swung freely and pressured Williams with aggressive net play, and she was finally able to claim her first Grand Slam title by defeating Williams (and keeping a level head after Williams' controversial outburst) with a 6-2, 6-3 victory.
The men's draw produced expected results, as all four top seeds (Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Murray) again made their way to the semifinals. Andy Roddick and John Isner were the lone Americans left standing in their home Slam by the quarterfinals, but both fell at the hands of Nadal and Murray, respectively. While veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero came out of nowhere to reach the fourth round, Janko Tipsarevic defeated the Spaniard, then followed with a hard-fought, two-tiebreak slugfest against countryman Djokovic before retiring.
Tennis fans around the world were eager to see their first Federer-Nadal US Open showdown in the championship match, but in a semifinal nearly identical to last year’s, Federer conceded two match points against Djokovic in a 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 loss. The Serb’s win staged a rematch of last year’s final, where Nadal won his first US Open crown.
It was the fourth consecutive year the men's singles final came to a Monday showdown, as Djokovic and Nadal battled for four hard sets, including a third-set tiebreak which showcased Nadal's mettle and heart against Djokovic's relentless return game. Yet it was Djokovic, through a back injury that required a medical timeout in the deciding set, that triumphed through adversity and completed his dream 2011, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1. As the Grand Slam season ends, Djokovic now needs only a Coupe de Mousquetaire at Roland-Garros to complete the career Slam.
So what’s in store for 2012? If one thing’s for sure, these majors bring out the best in tennis’ top talent, and we can expect nothing less than another round of thrilling surprises—with the occasional breakout star, of course.