Novak Djokovic had won just two ATP titles in 2010, playing well enough to stay third in the rankings behind Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer but struggling to make that last step that would have raised his game to a higher level and catch the best players of the last half a decade.
That all changed when he won Davis Cup for Serbia at the end of the season, turning himself into an error-free machine that toppled all of his opponents from Melbourne until the US Open in 2011. 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 suffering a surprising loss in the semi-final at Roland Garros that maybe cost him a calendar Grand Slam, the feat not seen since Rod Laver in 1969.
Before Paris, Novak won all seven tournaments he entered and finished the season with three Grand Slams and five Masters 1000 titles, earning the place among the tennis immortals at the age of 24. The Serb ousted Andy Murray in the final of the Australian Open, Roger Federer in the title match in Dubai and his most dangerous rival Rafael Nadal 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.
On May 15, Novak claimed the second title in Rome, toppling a five-time champion Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in grueling two hours and 13 minutes for the 37th win in 37 matches in 2011. As always, Nadal gave his very best to stay in touch with an in-form rival, trying to finally beat him after three straight defeats in the big finals but with no luck, with Novak proving his dominance once again after the seventh win in their last nine encounters.
Both players served above 70% and 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 grabbed 38% of the return points and converted that only into three break points and two breaks of serve, outplayed in the crucial moments by a more confident rival. Djokovic had more winners and errors and overpowered Rafa in the more extended rallies to break the concrete defense of the Spaniard and continue his stellar run since the end of the last season.
The clash 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, with Novak converting the first when the Spaniard failed to control his backhand and moving 5-3 in front to serve for the set in the next game.
Nadal refused to surrender, breaking back after some poor forehands from Novak and reducing the deficit to 5-4 to stay in contention. Nonetheless, Novak remained calm and ruled the court again in game ten, scoring his second break in a row with a picture-perfect backhand crosscourt winner to take the opener 6-4 in 56 minutes.
The Serb held at 15 at the beginning of the second set and stole Rafa's serve 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 opener, Djokovic played a loose service game after obtaining the lead and Nadal pulled the break back in game three when Novak's drop shot landed long, staying competitive and gaining the necessary momentum to fight until the very last point.
The Spaniard fended off two break points in game four, leveling the score at 2-2 with a service winner and digging deep to stay locked up with Novak at 4-4 after almost two hours of play. The Serb experienced a little bit of trouble in the next game but fired two big forehands at deuce to make a crucial hold, jumping into a 5-4 advantage and forcing Nadal to serve to stay in the tournament.
A five-time champion placed his backhand beyond the baseline to give the Serb three match points, facing an ultimate challenger if he wanted to survive for another game and extend the encounter. He delivered three good points to wipe the danger away but Novak converted the fourth match point after a lucky net cord to wrap up this thrilling conflict in straight sets and maintain his unbeaten run in 2011.