Novak Djokovic had become the third best player on the Tour behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2007, working on his game regularly to catch the mentioned giants and start competing for big titles. Once he found the way to overcome the physical issues that prevented him from showing even more in the first couple of years, Novak transformed himself into a dominant figure for over half a decade, with all starting at the end of 2010 when he won Davis Cup crown for Serbia.
Carried by this momentum, Novak was ready to prove what he was made of in 2011, rattling off 41 wins since the start of the season and writing new chapters of tennis history that will certainly take some beating in the future.
Djokovic lost just one set en route to his second Australian Open title and was the player to beat in Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome as well, toppling world no. 1 Rafael Nadal in the final of all four Masters 1000 events he entered!
The big question was if Novak was capable of going all the way in Paris, targeting his first Roland Garros crown and entering the semi-final when Fabio Fognini had to withdraw before the quarter-final match. On June 3, Novak faced Roger Federer in the battle for the place in the final and the Swiss finally found the way to stop the mighty Serb, scoring a 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 triumph in three hours and 39 minutes to advance into his fifth French Open final in the last five seasons!
This was their 23rd meeting and the 14th win for Roger who fired 18 aces and saved nine out of 13 break points to keep the pressure on Novak who couldn't find the way to pass the obstacle for the first time in 2011. The Serb gave his best to avoid a setback and continue his perfect run, saving 21 out of 25 break points but failing to take the fourth set tie break and stay in contention in this encounter and the tournament overall.
We could only guess what would have happened if he had reached the final against Rafael Nadal although it didn't take long for Novak to leave this defeat behind, winning his first Wimbledon a few weeks later followed by a triumph in New York for one of the most successful seasons in the Open era.
Novak had the expected advantage in the longer rallies, hitting in full power from both wings and forcing Roger to seek the positive result in the shortest points which the Swiss did in style. Roger had the upper hand in those quick exchanges thanks to his serve and an initial forehand that kept the advantage on his racquet, taking timing away from Novak and avoiding grueling rallies and exposure of his backhand.
Champion from two years ago kicked off the action with a break when Novak missed a forehand, staying in front only for a couple of minutes as Djokovic got it back after a forehand mistake from Roger in game two. The Serb repelled four break points in game three to avoid another setback and another one at 2-2 to stay in touch.
Federer wasted too many opportunities on the return and was punished in game six when Novak broke for a 4-2 lead, only to drop serve in the next game to the drama and tension. Roger saved two set points on serve in game ten and grabbed the tie break 7-5 after a forehand error from Novak, 70 minutes since the start of the match.
Djokovic sprayed another forehand mistake in the fourth game of the second set to suffer a break, pushing Roger 4-1 up when the Swiss landed a service winner. The Serb saved more break points in game six to bypass a double break deficit and erased five set points at 2-5 to prolong the set and extend his chances.
Serving for the set in game nine, Roger delivered a nice hold and was two sets to love up in just under two hours, looking good to bring the win home and perform a big surprise. Novak had to raise his level as soon as possible, opening the third set with a break in game two and holding at 30 after a backhand error from Roger to move 3-0 ahead.
Serving for the set at 5-3, Djokovic held at love and closed the set with an ace down the T line, ready to fight for every point in the rest of the clash and emerge as the winner for the 42nd time that year. Roger was on a mission in the opening four service games in set number four, though, dropping one point to keep the pressure on the other side of the net before facing a break point at 4-4 that could have changed the course of the match completely.
Staying calm, the Swiss blasted a service winner to fend it off before Novak earned another one, converting it after a forehand error from Federer to serve for the set in the next game. Keeping his focus on a high note, Roger broke back in the very last moment with a forehand down the line winner, having to work hard in the next service game when Novak created two break points.
The Swiss saved both with service winners and fired another one to bring the game home and force Novak to serve for staying in the match. The Serb held after deuce and they stay close to each other until 3-3 in the tie break when Novak made a massive forehand error to hand Roger a mini-break.
Two unreturned serves sent Federer 6-3 up and he landed an ace at 6-5 to celebrate one of his biggest wins ever considering the circumstances and the fact he didn't play well in the previous events on clay that spring.