Novak Djokovic's most impressive achievement isn't his victory at Wimbledon or his ascent to top of men's tennis; it's that he managed both these accomplishments, a childhood dream and a long-term goal as he later described them, in an era that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have made their own. For a while Djokovic appeared to be no more than a warm-up act to the enthralling, storied rivalry between two of the greatest players of all time. Between them, Federer and Nadal won 24 of the 28 Grand Slam tournaments that were played in the seven years preceding 2011. Dominance in sport affects the rest of the field in two ways: most can't stand the pressure and settle for mediocrity; a few refuse to yield and are forced to heights perhaps even they mightn't have imagined. Djokovic never doubted which group he belonged to. Although the Serb's progress after his breakthrough win — at the 2008 Australian Open — wasn't as he would have wished, his drive didn't suffer. He committed to getting better, knowing the results mightn't show immediately. Winning the Davis Cup late last year was a turnaround: he later said that the fear of losing didn't grip him as severely any longer.
The liberation from fear led to Djokovic becoming the best tennis player of 2011. His only defeat in 49 matches was to an inspired Federer at the French Open. With every victory, his belief strengthened. The 24-year-old's singular year has been driven by significant advancements in technique and fitness. His forehand, which often broke down, became more solid and better balanced; his serve gained from a minor adjustment, helping him set up points better. With these enhancements, his piercing two-handed backhand, always a weapon, grew more potent. Excellent at defensive play, he could now dictate the tempo as well. Djokovic's improved physical conditioning, which was aided in part by a gluten-free diet, was just as vital. The knowledge that he could stay with Nadal in the long rally — not only could he cover court as well, he could also hit with similar intensity in the later stages of the point — protected him against the pressure to do too much too soon. In short, he could do to Nadal what the Spaniard usually did to others. As Nadal graciously admitted after the Wimbledon final, his fifth defeat to Djokovic this year, his play no longer seems to bother his rival; he has to find solutions against Djokovic. From being coerced by Federer and Nadal to raise his game to compelling the great champions to lift theirs, Djokovic has come a long way. Tennis is extraordinarily fortunate that the careers of these three men have coincided.