Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees had sensational calendar years dominating NFL defenses and Justin Verlander had an amazing year leading the Detroit Tigers to the playoffs and winning both the MVP and Cy Young awards. There were many athletes who had incredible 2011′s, but no one had a year quite as dominant as the man they call The Djoker.
The year in tennis began with Rafael Nadal as the unquestioned top player in the sport and ended with one of the most dominant years in the history of the sport. 2011 started with many doubting Novak Djokovic’s ability to pull through and consistently win tournaments and grand slam events. Then Djokovic took the sport by storm.
It began in Melbourne with Djokovic’s second career Australian Open championship, beating Roger Federer and Andy Murray in straight sets to win it. What he did in the subsequent 10 months was nothing short of historically astounding.
Djokovic took on a gluten free diet, became more precise with his ground strokes, worked on his conditioning and went an unbelievable 70-6 in 2011 and a total of three major titles. The 24-year-old Serbian superstar went 6-0 against Nadal, all in tournament finals, and 4-1 against Federer. He won 10 singles titles, he had won 11 in the last three years combined, and earned nearly $13 million in prize money.
Djokovic didn’t lose his first match until June 5. Think about that for a few seconds and then get back to this article…I’ll wait. He took singles titles in Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, his native Belgrade, Madrid and Rome. He defeated Nadal in the final to take three of those tournaments and was practically unbeatable for a four month stretch. His streak ended when he met the only major tournament he didn’t win. He fell to Federer in the semifinals of the French Open, ending a 43-match winning streak.
Despite the impressive run, his ability to consistently win major tournaments remained in question. That changed a month later at Wimbledon. Electing to skip the grass court warm-up tournaments for the Championships at the All England Club, Djokovic looked rested and focused, dropping just four sets in the entire tournament. He ousted the talented Frenchman Jo-Wilifried Tsonga in the semifinals before meeting Nadal in yet another final.
Even though Djokovic never won a major tournament outside of Melbourne, Djokovic had a psychological advantage by winning all those previous tournament matches, two of them coming on Nadal’s favored clay surface. Djokovic won the match fairly handily in four sets to win his second major title of the year and took a ton of momentum into the American summer hardcourt season.
Wins in Montreal and Cincinnati in a limited schedule, in order for The Djoker to rest, took him to Flushing Meadows for the U.S. Open. Novak breezed through to the semifinals, where he played the match of the year against Federer under the Saturday night lights in Queens.
Federer took the first two sets from Djokovic and that almost always clinched the match for the all-time great Swiss technician. Federer was 181-1 when winning the first two sets in a Grand Slam match. However, this was Djokovic’s year and Djokovic’s match. Down 5-3 and two match points in the fifth set, Djokovic hit a series of incredible shots to win four straight games and the match. He then slayed Nadal again in the final to win his third major of the year and cap one of the dominant years in the history of the sport.
No player in any sport had a more dominant and successful year, and SprungOnSports congratulates Novak Djokovic for winning this year’s award.
Other Nominees Who Fell Short (ordered alphabetically)
Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers- The righty slugger won the NL MVP award, led the Brewers to the playoffs and then tested positive for a banned substance, creating widespread controversy in the sport.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints- Brees broke Dan Marino’s single season record for passing yards and led New Orleans to an 12-3 season in 2011.
Jimmer Fredette, PG, BYU/Sacramento Kings- JimmerMania spread throughout college basketball this year, with his dazzling individual performances captivating the country despite playing for a non-major school. He was taken in the first round of the NBA Draft in June by the Kings.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor- His accuracy, arm strength, speed and running ability allowed RGIII to become the first player in school history to win the Heisman Trophy. He is slated to become a first round pick in next April’s NFL Draft.
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford- He led the Cardinal to a Pac 12 title and is generally regarded as the best NFL QB prospect since Peyton Manning. He was so great as a QB in college that he inspired a widespread “Suck For Luck” campaign among fans of losing NFL teams. The Indianapolis Colts, the team that drafted and still has Manning at QB, is currently the frontrunners to get the first pick in next April’s draft.
Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks- Nowitzki finally won his elusive NBA title in a six-game thriller over the Miami Heat and was named Finals MVP.
Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals/Los Angeles Angels- Not only did Pujols have another sensational season for the Redbirds and help lead his team to a World Series title, he also shocked the sporting world by leaving St. Louis for a $254 million contract with the Angels. He scored high grades in the on field and off-the-field/controversial categories.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers- The master of the discount double-check won the Super Bowl MVP award and led his Packers team to a 14-1 record in 2011.
Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls- The 2011 NBA MVP, Rose improved on his three-point shot and his passing ability to lead Chicago to the Eastern Conference Finals.
David Stern, Commissioner, NBA- Stern not only partially brought the league this year’s NBA lockout, but also rejected the league’s trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers. No commish had a more influential or controversial year.
Tim Tebow, QB, Denver Broncos- He got America and the world to think about faith’s role in sports after a string of wins for his Broncos and inspired his name becoming a verb with his kneeling prayer on the football field.
Tim Thomas, G, Boston Bruins- His incredible goaltending helped Boston win its first Stanley Cup in 39 years while winning the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) and Vezina (best goalie) trophies.
Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers- He won 24 games, threw a no-hitter, led Detroit to the ALCS and won the Cy Young and MVP in the American League. Not too shabby.
Kemba Walker, PG, UConn/Charlotte Bobcats- Walker led the Huskies to an improbable national title with a dazzling display of skill and ability. He was taken by the Bobcats in the June draft to try to rebuild the franchise.
Familiar Faces Guide Philadelphia To Win At Pittsburgh
Former Penguins Jaromir Jagr and Maxime Talbot both made their first trip back to Pittsburgh since becoming members of the Flyers and both were instrumental in leading Philadelphia to an important 4-2 road win on Thursday.
Jagr’s goal in the second period, his 12th of the season, gave Philadelphia a lead they would hold for the duration of the game. Talbot’s empty-net goal sealed it for the Flyers, who are now two points ahead of Pittsburgh, tied with the Rangers for the Atlantic Division lead and just a point behind Boston for the Eastern Conference lead.
“I felt pretty good but I had so many chances that if I would have scored five goals, nobody would be surprised,” Jagr said after the game.
Claude Giroux added two more assists Thursday and continues to lead the league in points with 46. He said that it was nice for Jagr to get the goal considering how tough the Pittsburgh fans were on him. “I think it was important for not just him but the whole team to get that goal because he got it pretty tough from the fans,” Giroux said. “But I think he kind of liked it a little bit.”
Jets Quietly Soar Into Playoff Picture
A brutal Eastern Conference travel schedule was supposed to mar the Winnipeg Jets’ season and make them an afterthought in the Southeast Division. The travel was such a cause for concern that it was one of the major reasons the league elected to realign the divisions for next season. To everyone’s surprise, the Jets have more points than the Capitals and the Lightning as we leave 2011.
Winnipeg got 31 saves from Steve Mason and an Evander Kane overtime goal to blank Los Angeles 1-0 and take over the seventh spot in the conference. It was the team’s third win in four games and seventh in their last 10. The Jets are in the middle of the pack in virtually every major statistical team category, but the 35-year-old Mason is playing well whenever called on to start in net.
“Every game day is a little bit bigger of an event for me,” Mason said. The former Blues and Predators starter is 5-2 with a 1.91 goals against average and a .927 save percentage in nine games and six starts for the Jets, and has become an admirable backup to Ondrej Pavelec. Head Coach Claude Noel had nothing but praise for Mason after the win.
“He gives you no reason to not play him,” Noel said. “He continues to battle hard, he comes in cold. I mean, there can’t be a tougher job than what he has. He certainly gives a comfort level to your team.”
As Winnipeg gets more comfortable with their new city, new division and new surroundings, it’s becoming more apparent that the Jets are going to hand around in this Eastern Conference playoff race.
Weekend Games To Watch
Friday- There are a few games between playoff teams on a less than busy night in the NHL. Eastern Conference division leaders match up as the Rangers visit the struggling Panthers. The NHL leading Blackhawks have a tough assignment against division rival Detroit, and another Central Division rivalry takes place with St. Louis and Nashville playing as the current sixth and seventh seeds in the conference.
Saturday- A total of 12 games take place on this New Year’s Eve, most notably Detroit and St. Louis, Pittsburgh taking on division rival New Jersey and Toronto and Winnipeg playing on CBC, with playoff spots on the line.
Sunday- Calgary and Nashville is the only game on the schedule as the league gears up for Monday’s Winter Classic. Happy New Year, NHL fans!
NEW YORK– By Daniel Friedman
1) It’s Time For The NHL To Take A Stand On ConcussionsNashville Predators’ star defenseman Shea Weber became the latest victim of what’s truly become a pandemic in the NHL this season. How many more times does this have to happen before the NHL decides to take serious action? The Board of Governors was more than happy to convene at Pebble Beach and schmooze about realignment, but I’d like to believe that player safety is a far more important issue. It’s time for commissioner Bettman to get everyone together and figure out a way to reduce these head injuries. The longer the league waits, the more devastating this can become.
2) Wild Spiraling Out Of Control
Remember when the Minnesota Wild was the best team in hockey? They’re far from it now. Losers of eight consecutive games, the Wild has seemingly fallen back down to earth. Earlier on, I said that what was occurring in Minnesota was too good to be true. I think that’s exactly what we’re now seeing, as this team’s weaknesses are being exposed and exploited. There’s just not enough depth, on offense or defense, in their lineup and that’s coming back to bite them. The fact that the Vancouver Canucks are surging doesn’t help matters either. Call me crazy, but I expected the Wild to miss the playoffs before the season started and I still do.
3) There’s No Stopping Boston
The Boston Bruins are easily the best team in hockey right now. Just ask the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers, who have accomplished plenty themselves but looked downright pathetic and were absolutely manhandled by the B’s, 6-0 and 8-0, respectively. It all starts with their goaltending. Tim Thomas and Tuuka Rask are the top tandem in the league (others come close but these two are the best). Boston’s defense, led by Zdeno Chara, is outstanding and has shown the ability to shut down opposing teams virtually every night. The Bruins are also very deep on offense, especially down the middle (Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Chris Kelly). There isn’t a single weak point and not one ineffective player. That kind of depth is the stuff of greatness. Expect the Bruins to win the President’s Trophy.
New York Metro Outlook
New York Rangers
The Blueshirts are rolling right along, winners of five straight before they lost to Washington Wednesday night. It certainly wasn’t their best game, but I’m not overly concerned about the Rangers. Coach John Tortorella runs a tight ship and will make sure things turn around in a hurry.
One guy that has to be feeling better these days is Brandon Dubinsky, who’s struggled all season long but now has four points in his last four contests. Dubi’s a fine hockey player who just needed to get some confidence, and it appears that’s finally happening. It’s also hard not to like what we’re seeing from rookie Carl Hagelin, whose contributions come with (nine points in 17 games) and without the puck (plus-eight rating). I love Hagelin’s work ethic and never-give-up attitude at both ends of the ice.
Superstars Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards have continued to shine, as have Henrik Lundqvist and Dan Girardi. Those four players are the core of this team. As long as they’re coming through, the wins and points will come too.
Another positive note is that defenseman Marc Staal was cleared for contact drills this past week. There’s still no definitive timetable for his return, but it’s a huge step forward nonetheless. If and when Staal comes back this year, this Ranger team is going to be even more dangerous.
New York Islanders
The Islanders have been nothing short of a train wreck these days. They’ve dropped their last three games, including a pair against the Rangers. There’s not much to say about this team because, unfortunately for them, the storyline’s remained the same; not enough grit, not enough scoring and lackluster defense. When you don’t skate for 60 minutes, don’t finish your checks and don’t clear the zone, you don’t win. Plain and simple.
Making matters worse, the Isles can’t seem to catch a break and players are dropping like flies with injuries. Goaltender Al Montoya and forward David Ullstrom (considered the Isles’ “Hagelin” in my book), two key puzzlie pieces, are out with concussions. Evgeni Nabokov has done a solid job filling in for Montoya, but many of the guys in front of him haven’t exactly played inspired defense.
Coach Jack Capuano is shuffling the forward lines for tonight’s game against Calgary, in an effort to kick-start this team offensively. Kyle Okposo joins John Tavares and Matt Moulson on the top line. The second line features Frans Nielsen, centering Brian Rolston and P.A. Parenteau. Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner and Matt Martin comprise the third unit; Marty Reasoner, Tim Wallace and Nino Niederreiter, the fourth.
Why Niederreiter is on that line is beyond me and it’s really the only beef I have with the new line combinations. If you’re trying to develop him, either put him with better linemates or send him to the AHL to refine his game. But placing him on the fourth line, where he’ll only play a few minutes a night and won’t get enough quality scoring chances, just doesn’t make much sense.
New Jersey Devils
With 41 points, the Devils currently occupy the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. They are 7-3-0-0 in their last 10 games. To say that what New Jersey has accomplished thus far is surprising would be a gigantic understatement. It’s simply mind-boggling. Why? Because the players that have contributed the most are not the ones you’d have expected to.
Raise your hand if you thought Petr Sykora would have seven points in his last six contests, and that he’d be on pace for 50 near the halfway mark of the season. If your hand is up, you’re full of baloney. We knew Patrik Elias could play, but he’s putting up nearly a point-per-game at age 35! That’s not something that happens on a regular basis in this league. Also, I’m not sure anyone could’ve predicted that rookie call-up Adam Henrique would have the type of impact he has. Racking up 28 points in 33 games (including 16 in his last 15) isn’t a fluke: He’s for real.
Martin Brodeur has struggled but is looking better over the last couple of games. He’s won his last two starts, posting a 1.92 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in the process. Johan Hedberg’s been sharp from the get-go, which has really helped New Jersey get to their current position in the standings. If Hedberg doesn’t perform, the Devils are at the bottom of the pile and looking at another lottery draft pick.
Ilya Kovalchuk continues to be a massive disappointment and, though he’s on pace for 65 points, I’d say Zach Parise has also been one. For a guy that’s in a contract year and who notched 82 and 94 points in his last two full seasons, respectively, he’s not dominating the way he should be. Parise and Kovalchuk need to step up because, as nice as Sykora’s production has been, there’s no guarantee it will last. You need your two best players to lead the way and, with the Devils, that’s simply not happening right now.
Boston’s Bigs Not Doing Enough
The Celtics are on a three-game losing streak, those happen in the NBA, but Boston is having theirs to start the season. The frontcourt will obviously be better with Paul Pierce in the lineup, but GM Danny Ainge may have indirectly backed his team into a corner on this one.
Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal and Brandon Bass aren’t going to cut it in the Eastern Conference and the team’s Kendrick Perkins-Jeff Green trade will seemingly cost this team in the short and long term. Boston was out-rebounded by 11 in a 97-78 loss in New Orleans, even though the Hornets were without Eric Gordon, and the Celts are clearly missing Perkins’ interior toughness.
Green’s heart problems will cost him the entire season of a one-year, qualifying offer deal. There is certainly a chance Green could leave the team after the season and Boston will have gotten nothing for a player many considered the glue that kept this Celtics team together.
Boston could have something in 26-year-old Greg Steimsma, who blocked six shots in his NBA debut on Thursday night. The Wisconsin graduate played in Turkey last season after a year in the D-League. He has also spent time playing professionally in South Korea, but here he is possibly playing a large role in what Ainge and Doc Rivers hope is a successful season.
“I just thought we played tired,” Rivers said. “We looked old tonight.” The problem is that the Celtics are old, and they’re going to need much larger contributions from its front line or they’re going to be looking at a lost season and a bleak future ahead.
Thoughts & Theories
-San Antonio’s defensive reputation has been overlooked in season previews, and the team’s balance and efficiency helped the team impressively blow out the Clippers on Wednesday. Los Angeles shot under 40 percent and the Spurs were over 56 percent, led by DeJuan Blair’s 10-15 shooting night with 20 points.
San Antonio shots 10-19 from three, including Manu Ginobili’s 5-8 for a team high 24 points. The Spurs’ frontline depth helped them gain a distinct rebounding position over the Clippers, who are thin behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Ryan Gomes isn’t a true big man and Brian Cook isn’t going to be enough. Vinny Del Negro is going to have to give Reggie Evans minutes off the bench for this team to be consistently successful.
Rookie Kawhi Leonard was able to grab eight rebounds in 20 minutes for the Spurs, which is as many Jordan got in 33 minutes for L.A. It should come as no surprise that Leonard led all bench players with a +10 in the game. It still comes down to defense, rebounding and overall that drives the Spurs to continued success.
-While Phoenix has no standout player besides for Steve Nash, they have enough good pieces to be a competitive team on a nightly basis. There’s no reason the Suns should ever be limited to 34 points in a half, and it’ll take some time (like Dallas) for Phoenix to find the right rotation and divvy up the minutes to create the right lineups on the floor. Robin Lopez looks like he should be starting over Marcin Gortat through the first two games and Hakim Warrick added a good scoring punch off the bench. With preseason time cut so short, teams will have to continue to tinker with their rotations through the first 10 games of the season.
-The Warriors are generally a poor defensive team, but their ability to stop the opposition was the reason for two straight wins over Eastern Conference contenders Chicago and New York. The Knicks were limited to 35 points in the second half of a 92-78 loss and their lack of depth at the guard position was part of the reason why.
Golden State brought in Ish Smith for an injured Stephen Curry and Smith played really well, scoring 11 points but also grabbing six rebounds. and adding four assists. Brandon Rush scored 19 points with six rebounds, compared to the empty 14 points Bill Walker contributed off the bench for New York. It should come as no surprise that Rush finished with a +21 compared to a -11 for Walker. Rush did more while he was on the floor.
For Toney Douglas to become an effective point guard, he needs to become more of a distributor to the team’s two stars. Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony only took 27 combined shots in the game and they need to be the focal points for the Knicks to win games. New York clearly needs a better backup than Mike Bibby, who brought little to the team on Wednesday. Jeremy Lin needs to have more playing time with Iman Shumpert out for the team to have any sort of fighting chance at the guard position.
Games To Watch
Thursday- We’ll see if Dallas solved its rotation problems as they visit Oklahoma City in the first game of a TNT doubleheader. New York will share its guard problems with the Lakers at 10:30. San Antonio and Houston are similarly styled clubs and Denver at Portland should be a nice contrast, with the high-flying Nuggets taking on the fundamentally oriented Blazers. We’ll see if the exciting Kings have more in store for Chicago at home.
Friday- The Bulls take on the Clippers with a Derrick Rose-Chris Paul showdown in store. Other interesting matchups include Kyrie Irving and Cleveland testing their luck against a strong-looking Pacers team, Houston taking on Memphis and Charlotte continuing its tough homestand against Orlando.
Saturday- New Year’s Eve is highlighted by the Nuggets visiting the Lakers, Houston hosting Atlanta and the Warriors taking on the Sixers.
In its latest and most noteworthy bullpen move in what appears to be an offseason overhaul, Boston traded for All-Star closer Andrew Bailey in a five-player deal with the Athletics.
In the deal, Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney head to Boston in exchange for OF Josh Reddick and prospects Miles Head and Raul Alcantara. Bailey, 27, racked up 24 saves in 42 appearances and 41 innings for the A’s and will be the Red Sox’s opening day closer with Mark Melancon and Daniel Bard setting up.
Boston also received a fourth outfielder type in Sweeney, a career .286 hitter who did decently in spot duty for the Athletics last season. Oakland’s main return is the 24-year-old outfielder Reddick, who hit .280/.327/.457 in 87 games for the Red Sox. He displayed flashes of power, but it’s yet to be seen if hey can be an everyday major league player. In that way, some analysts wonder how different Sweeney and Reddick actually are.
The minor league return was solid for Billy Beane, with 1B/3B Miles Head coming over from Boston. Head, 20, put up good power numbers in low-A but couldn’t replicate those numbers at advanced-A Salem. Expect the righty hitting Head to start 2012 in advanced-A in the California League and progress from there. The other piece the A’s got was Raul Alcantara, a righty starter still slowly developing in short season ball.
With Bailey still under cheap team control, Boston and GM Ben Cherington could now spend more on rotation help. Quality starters still available include righties Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda along with lefty Joe Saunders.