Djokovic was ahead of the pack

Pete Sampras believed winning one Grand Slam singles title in a season was a good effort. He should know; he won at least one major 10 times in his career and left the game in 2002 with a then-record 14 in his trophy case.

By that standard, the four best tennis players on the planet can all feel reasonably happy about their results in 2012.

For the first time in nine years, four different men won the majors. Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open, followed by Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, Roger Federer at Wimbledon and Andy Murray, also the Olympic gold medalist, who became a first-time major champion at the U.S. Open.

So, who was the fairest of them all?

ATP Player of the Year: That would be Djokovic, who, in winning the year-end Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, did just enough to edge Murray.

Brad Gilbert, who has coached Murray -- as well as Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick -- concurs.

"He had a great season last year, winning three majors," Gilbert said. "So Djoker was hitting .400 and he backed it up this year by hitting, what, .360? Yeah, that's a pretty good season."

Djokovic finished as the No. 1-ranked player for the second consecutive year. Federer did it from 2004 to '07, but he's the only other man to accomplish that since Lleyton Hewitt in 2001-02.

Although Serena Williams made a big splash, winning the last four important titles on the WTA side -- Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, plus the Olympics and the year-end event -- Djokovic was more consistent by far.

He made three major finals and won three Masters 1000 events, as well, finishing with an ATP-high 75 match wins. Last year, after a ridiculous start, he faded badly down the stretch. This year, he started strong and finished stronger.

Djokovic went nearly five hours in the Australian Open semifinals against Murray, then came back to beat Nadal in an epic final that required nearly six hours. Clearly, that effort took a lot out of him. Still, Djokovic got to the final at Roland Garros and in New York before going undefeated in London.

Federer, at 31, proved in London that he still has the chops -- and the desire -- to succeed at the highest level. The ATP compiled a list of the 10 best shots at the Barclays -- and four of them belonged to Federer. In winning his seventh title at Wimbledon, the Swiss champion ran his major total to 17 -- a number that, all things considered, is looking harder and harder to equal.

Murray, meanwhile, now has the confidence to win more majors. Going forward, he is likely to prove Djokovic's toughest out.

Match of the Year: Australian Open final: This, right here, is why we love men's tennis.

Djokovic and Nadal went at each other for five hours and 53 minutes, and the match ended at 1:37 in the morning, Melbourne time. Nadal had a backhand that might have turned the match, but he couldn't land it in the court.

Think how history might have been different if Nadal had made that shot and ultimately won the match. He would have 12 majors, and Djokovic -- whose game on hard courts is extremely punishing on his body -- would have only four. With only one year separating them (Nadal is 26 and Djokovic 25), that might have safely distanced Nadal from the Serb.

Afterward, both players had difficulty standing during the trophy presentation. Hard to believe it would be Djokovic's only Grand Slam title of the year.

Newcomer of the Year: Martin Klizan.

It all depends on your definition of a newcomer, but we'll go along with the ATP players' vote on this one.

The 6-foot-3 lefty from the Slovak Republic was ranked outside the top 100 last year -- he wasn't even in the ATP World Tour media guide -- but he jumped 88 spots this year, all the way up to No. 29.

Klizan won the title in St. Petersburg and knocked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga out of the U.S. Open.

Most Disappointing: Nadal.

Rafa has always paid a price for the bruising physicality of his game, and now we're starting to see the toll it has taken.

Yes, he won his seventh French Open title, but he was escorted to the showers in the second round at Wimbledon, where he is a two-time champion. We didn't see him again, the result of a torn patellar tendon. Nadal's camp opted for rest instead of surgery. James Blake did the same with a similar injury, but, after a long rest, needed surgery anyway.

"The one bummer of the entire season is Rafa going down," said Gilbert, an ESPN analyst. "You just hope he can make a full recovery. It also makes you realize what a freak of nature Roger is. He's the Cal Ripken of tennis. He never misses anything."