Ascension of Djokovic, Murray creates new dynamic in men's game

From a scowling underachiever to one of the game's elite, Andy Murray is knocking on the door of major championships. Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

The 2008 season opened with a player other than Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer hoisting a Grand Slam championship trophy for the first time in three years. Novak Djokovic's breakthrough at the Australian Open signaled a new status quo. As the year went on, the Federer-Nadal rivalry continued to be the most compelling story line in tennis, whether they were pursuing each other in the rankings or on the court. But there were plenty of other delights, distractions and dumbfounding events this season. We review some of the highlights and head-scratchers below.

Player of the year

No dispute here. Rafael Nadal crashed through the thin but still-obvious fiberglass ceiling that separated him from Roger Federer: re-asserting his dominance in a big way in the lopsided French Open final, winning Wimbledon in an unparalleled five-set thriller, capturing the Olympic gold medal and finally overtaking Federer for the No. 1 ranking in August after three years at No. 2. It's no surprise that Nadal wore out as this jam-packed season wore down, withdrawing from both the year-end championships and the Davis Cup final. We wish him a restful interlude, and think it's safe to say that the dynamic at the top of the men's game has shifted.

Match of the year

See above. The Wimbledon final had everything: the best two players in the world, spectacular shotmaking, a finish as darkness descended and a wildly appreciative crowd.

Most improved player

This is a tricky category -- do we go with a guy who made a major move in the rankings, or a top player who bridged that seemingly small but elusive gap to place himself among the elite group of potential Slam winners? In this case, we'll opt for the latter and recognize No. 4 Andy Murray, who emerged from an uncertain, injury-plagued stretch and a coaching change to flex his biceps and increased mental muscle and show he's up to the dreaded task of being Great Britain's standard-bearer. We think he has a great shot to win his first major in Australia next month. Honorary mention to Stanislas Wawrinka and Gilles Simon, both of whom cracked the top 10 for the first time in their careers this season.

Most improved American

Sam Querrey showed he's not afraid of anyone or any surface this season. He knocked off then-No. 9 Richard Gasquet to advance to the Monte Carlo quarterfinals last spring, and gave Nadal all he could handle on center court at the U.S. Open and again in his Davis Cup debut in the semifinals, contested in the hostile environment of a Madrid bullring. Querrey also won his first ATP title in Las Vegas early in the season. As the year wound down, he wasn't bashful about stating his goal to guarantee himself a seeded position at next year's Aussie Open. It was a tall order, and Querrey fell a little short at No. 39, but credit him for reasonable ambition combined with great attitude.

Young player to watch

Kei Nishikori, who turns 19 in late December, has a beautiful game, an endearing personality and the massive pressure that comes along with an early tag as the best player ever to emerge from his native Japan. Up from No. 288 in January to No. 63 at year's end, he shows signs of being able to embrace the challenge.

Biggest upset

Now that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a top-10 player and one of the ATP's most charismatic stars, it's easy to forget that a mere 11 months ago he was regarded as a relatively easy mark for Nadal in their Australian Open semifinal. Tsonga had never played a full season at the ATP level, and his big body is prone to breaking down. The Frenchman rose to the occasion with a brilliant, creative and nearly error-free match that left Nadal shaking his head in bewilderment on the other side of the net. Honorary mention: Nishikori was ranked 180th and had only a handful of ATP matches under his belt when he beat then-No. 12 James Blake for the Delray Beach (Fla.) title; University of Illinois product Kevin Anderson of South Africa overcame a similar paper mismatch to shock No. 3 Novak Djokovic in the second round in Miami.

Biggest upset (team)

Spanish Davis Cup captain Emilio Sanchez said he admired the camaraderie of the 2007 champion U.S. team and tried to cultivate that spirit among his own group of talented players. In retrospect, host Argentina might have chosen badly for the final by going against its own traditional strength and playing on a hard court. But there's no question that Spain's better interpersonal chemistry was a factor in beating the fractious Argentines, despite Nadal's absence.

Best use of equipment

Nikolay Davydenko took recycling to a new level, winning all six matches en route to the Sony Ericsson Open title in Miami using a single Prince racket.

Worst use of equipment

In a moment of frustration during a late-night, early-round match against Nicolas Almagro in Miami, Russia's Mikhail Youzhny bashed himself in the forehead several times with his racket frame, drawing blood and forcing a stoppage in play. The video became an overnight YouTube sensation and cast ultra-serious soldier Youzhny (who ultimately won the match) in the unlikely role of slapstick comedian. "We were just two crazy boys out there," Youzhny said an hour later, the wound still oozing.

Weirdest crowd interaction

The normally decorous Federer wheeled toward the box where Novak Djokovic's parents and other supporters were sitting in Monte Carlo and snapped "Be quiet."

Most ill-advised crowd interaction

In a postmatch, on-court interview at the U.S. Open, Djokovic lashed out at Andy Roddick for Roddick's previous quips about his multiple physical ailments, triggering a hailstorm of boos at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Even Roddick, who doesn't always exhibit great impulse control, would know better than to do the same in Belgrade.

Lost in translation celebration

OK, it was a strange year overall for Federer, and there were times he needed to cut loose a little. After he and countryman Wawrinka won the Olympic doubles gold medal, Federer passed his hands over his prone teammate in what looked like a creepy cult ritual. It was apparently meant to signify that Wawrinka was "hot," but you could have fooled us. Guys, please stick to the usual clichés and leave the hackneyed symbolism to us writers.

Most graphic self-defense

"It's not because I was scratching my things on the sofa and I didn't want to play tennis." -- Marat Safin at the Sony Ericsson Open, explaining why his comeback from a knee injury has been so fitful.

Most candid self-assessment

"I've been living like this since I was 10, traveling around. For me to sit back somewhere in the same place for a couple of months or one year, it would be suicidal. So I prefer to travel to nice places -- Miami, Australia, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Rome, Hamburg -- so it's pretty interesting places. To give up on that … it's a very tough decision, and I'm still enjoying it." -- Safin, same interview.

Most candid self-assessment, Part II

"I think if she will do everything opposite of what I've been doing throughout the years, she will be No. 1 in the world for a long time. That's as simple as it is." -- Safin at the U.S. Open, talking about his sister Dinara Safina's breakthrough season.

Dubious milestone

Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis began their Australian Open match at 11:47 p.m. and finished at 4:34 the next morning, the latest result in Grand Slam history. It might have been a delightful novelty from afar -- especially for U.S. fans who enjoyed the spectacle over breakfast -- but in the interests of top-notch competition, we don't think players should have to work the graveyard shift.

Off the radar

Baghdatis, now No. 99, didn't look like he was heading in the right direction even before injuries sidelined and hampered him through much of the season. We're also wondering if Guillermo Canas can regain the great form he showed in his comeback from a contested doping suspension last year.

We'll miss

The intelligence and class consistently displayed by veteran Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden; the elastic reach, contagious grin and loose-limbed grace of Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten; the pure entertainment provided by the maddening Magician, Fabrice Santoro of France.

Parting words

"Well, I don't understand 'redemption ' quite that well, but I don't think that's what it is. I don't feel like I needed this win particularly to prove myself, you know. I don't think I'm at that point any more." -- Federer, after defeating Murray to win his fifth straight U.S. Open title.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.