Novak Djokovic had won just two ATP titles in 2010, playing well enough to keep his third position behind Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer but struggling to make that last step that would raise his game up to a higher level and reach the best players of the last half a decade.
That all changed when he won the Davis Cup for Serbia at the end of the season, turning himself into an error-free machine that toppled all of his opponents all the way from Melbourne until the US Open in 2011. Already a super fine player, Novak improved the crucial elements of his game (including the physical strength) to leave Federer, Nadal and all the others far behind, winning the first 43 matches of the season before he suffered a surprising loss in the semi-final of the Roland Garros that maybe cost him a calendar Grand Slam, something no one has achieved since Rod Laver in 1969.
Prior to Paris, Novak has won all seven tournaments he entered and he finished the season with three Grand Slams and five Masters 1000 titles, earning his place among the tennis immortals. He ousted Andy Murray in the final of the Australian Open, Roger Federer in the title match in Dubai and his most serious rival was Rafael Nadal, whom he defeated four times in a row in the final of Masters 1000 events (he didn't play in Monte Carlo) at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome.
The final of Rome was played on May 15 and Novak dethroned a five-time champion Nadal 6-4 6-4 in grueling two hours and 13 minutes. As always, Nadal gave his very best to stay in touch with an in-form rival and to finally beat him after three straight defeats in the big finals, but his efforts were in vain, as Novak proved his dominance over his closest rival once again to lift his second Rome crown and gain an even bigger mental advantage over the Spaniard (Novak had won seven of their last nine matches).
Both players served above 70% but it was Djokovic who drew more from that, pushing Nadal to the limits on the second serve (Rafa was five from 20 after missing the first) to create 11 break points and steal rival's serve on four occasions.
Nadal won 38% of the return points but that was enough to give him only three break points and two breaks of serve, being outplayed in the crucial moments by a more confident rival. Djokovic had more winners and errors and he overpowered Rafa in the longer points to break the concrete defense of the Spaniard and continue his stellar run since the beginning of the season.
The match kicked off with six easy holds on both sides in some 30 minutes (they served above 80%), forging a baseline battle that kept the crowd on the edge of their seats. The first big moment for the returners came in game eight when Nadal missed an easy forehand to hand two break points to his rival and Novak converted the first when the Spaniard failed to control his backhand, moving 5-3 in front and serving for the set in the following game.
Nadal refused to surrender and he broke back after some poor forehands from Novak, reducing the deficit to 5-4 and prolonging his chances. Nonetheless, Novak remained calm and he ruled the court again in game 10, scoring his second break in a row with a picture-perfect backhand cross court winner to take the opener 6-4 in 56 minutes.
The Serb held at 15 at the start of the second set and he broke Rafa in game two on his third break chance (Nadal saved the first two with smash winners) to move a set and a break up. Just like in the opening set, he played a loose service game once he earned the lead and Nadal broke back in game three when Novak's drop shot landed long, staying in contention and gaining the necessary momentum to fight on.
The Spaniard fends off two break points in game four, leveling the score at 2-2 with a service winner and battling for every point to stay locked up with Novak at 4-4 after almost two hours of play. Novak was in a little bit of trouble in the next game but he fired two big forehands at deuce to make a crucial hold, jumping into a 5-4 lead and forcing Nadal to serve to stay in the match.
The Spaniard placed his backhand beyond the baseline to give the Serb three match points, facing an ultimate challenger if he wanted to survive another game and extend the encounter. He played three good points to wipe the danger away but Novak converted his fourth match point after a lucky net cord to wrap up this thrilling encounter in straight sets and maintain his unbeaten run in 2011.