Editor's note: On Dec. 9, we begin our 10-part year-end awards series. Stay tuned each weekday for our latest entry.
Rafael Nadal may be an obvious choice as the men's player of the year, but at this time last year it was not even obvious when Nadal would play again.
Given that uncertain start, an already amazing season looks even greater: two Grand Slams, 10 titles total, the No. 1 ranking, $14.5 million in prize money, a 75-7 record and just three events in which he did not make at least the final. And if the summary is impressive, watching it unfold was even more so.
Returning in February after seven months away with a knee injury, Nadal performed a series of successive, interlocking feats that vaulted him back to the top of the men's game:
• He started his return by playing five of seven weeks, going 17-1 and reaching the final in his first tourney, and winning the next four events.
• He won Indian Wells for the third of those three titles, his first event on hard courts in almost a year.
• He played six of nine weeks during the European clay season, going 26-1 and reaching the Monte Carlo final, and then he went undefeated in his next four events.
• He won a record eighth French Open for the fourth of those four titles, coming from a break down against Novak Djokovic in the fifth set of their semifinal.
• He played four of five weeks on North American hard courts, going 17-0 -- or 22-0, counting his earlier victory at Indian Wells.
• He swept the Montreal Masters, Cincinnati Masters and US Open, joining Patrick Rafter and Andy Roddick in doing so.
Though Nadal did not win a title the rest of the season, he still had some of his best post-U.S. Open results, reaching the final of the year-end Tour Finals. His only major defeat -- and it was a big one -- was a first-round loss at Wimbledon. The knee injury didn't completely go away, either, though Nadal insisted his play was largely unaffected.
As if he hadn't played enough already, the 27-year-old from Mallorca has also kept himself busy in the offseason, taking part in a lighthearted Necker Cup for charity, then starting a six-day exhibition tour of South America before coming back to Spain to accept an award for being voted the greatest Spanish athlete in history.
If his long break amplified his achievements, it also spurred them on.
"When you are coming back from a situation that I came, after injury seven months, it's true that you came with a special feeling, very fresh, special motivation, because you feel that you lost a year for things that you cannot control," Nadal said earlier this season. "That really motivates me."
There have been a lot of great seasons on the men's tour over the past few years -- Djokovic's 2011, Nadal's own 2010, and Federer's 2006 and 2007 runs. However this one measures up, it has added considerably to Nadal's standing in the game's history. The Spaniard is now tied for third on the all-time list with 13 Grand Slam titles, and he has collected a record 27 Masters titles.
He has improved not only his position in the record books, but also his game. His forehand down the line has continued to develop, and he played more assertively at the baseline, making more forays to net and even employing an aggressive backhand slice during stretches.
These and other tactical changes helped him gain the upper hand against Djokovic for much of the year, before the Serb turned things around again by winning their last two matches of the season.
All in all, the two split their meetings 3-3, leaving the rivalry perfectly positioned going forward. And the question of who will be the next player of the year very much wide open.