Saturday, November 10, 2012

2012--loud, scary and memorable

Some WTA seasons (like 2011) are filled with drama, making it difficult to rank the degree of excitement and significance of various events. 2012, though not without its very dramatic moments, seemed like a less intense year to me. There were no bizarre (almost losing your career and possibly your life because of a broken bottle, disabling your ankle while dancing at a wedding, having a wall fall on you, etc.) injuries, no endlessly contested line calls, no "Who saw it coming?" wins at the four major tournaments.

A lot happened, though. The WTA, obviously swayed by the obsessions of the sports media, vowed to crack down on "future" grunting (but they mean screaming, and don't seem to know the difference), and to introduce a device to measure the loudness of a player's screams, shrieks, grunts, etc. All this rhetoric was swirling around while some of the tour's greatest screamers were winning majors and Olympic medals, so--in the words of our kick-ass number 1 player, Victoria Azarenka--"Good luck with that." Every time Stacey Allaster posed proudly for a press photo with Azarenka, I was overcome by the irony. I like to think that Azarenka (who also seemed to get taller each time a photo with Allaster was taken) was, too.

Some players didn't do well in 2012. 2011 French Open champion Li Na had a poor season until the fourth quarter, when she teamed with coach Carlos Rodridguez and started looking like the real Big Sister Na again. Jelena Jankovic had a dismal season, repeatedly going out in the first round or losing when she held match points. 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur just didn't bring her Flushing Meadows brilliance and confidence this year. There were other significant disappointments--more about those later.

Poor Andrea Petkovic, after struggling repeatedly with a back injury, was out most of the season because of an ankle injury. The news was better for Venus Williams, who returned to the tour after months of treatment for Sjogren's Syndrome, a condition which had gone undiagnosed for years. Williams worked her way back into the routine of the tour, and--with sister Serena--won the Wimbledon doubles title and an Olympic gold medal in doubles. She also won the singles title in Luxembourg.

Alisa Kleybanova made a tentative return to the tour this year after undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

The Olympic Games were held at Wimbledon. WTA players Agnieszka Radwanska and Maria Sharapova carried the flags for Poland and Russia, respectively. Marion Bartoli, on the other hand, wasn't permitted to compete. The maverick Frenchwoman didn't qualify for the Games because she had not played in Fed Cup competition, and she hadn't joined the Fed Cup team because she refused to abide by the coaching rules. Neither Bartoli nor the French tennis federation would budge, so Marion missed the event (more the pity, since there was a big James Bond moment in the opening ceremonies).

The season wasn't without surprises. 16-year-old Donna Vekic entered her very first WTA tournament, in Tashkent, and made it to the final. Qualifier Melanie Oudin won the Birmingham title! Veteran Russian Nadia Petrova, possibly the biggest "what if" star on the tour, won Tokyo, then won the Tournament of Champions in Sofia. And Yaroslava Shvedova served a Golden Set, the first in the history of women's tennis (she had previously come very close to serving one).

And while it wasn't exactly a surprise (not to me, anyway), Laura Robson grabbed everyone's attention at the U.S. Open when she reached the round of 16, taking out both three-time champion Kim Clijsters and Li Na. Robson, with partner Andy Murray, also won an Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles.

But Robson wasn't the only young Brit to make headlines. In October, Heather Watson became the first British woman in 24 years to win a WTA title. Watson won the tournament in Osaka, saving four match points in the final, which lasted three hours and twelve minutes.

2012 wasn't without its small pleasures. Amelie Mauresmo--who was on the short list to be France's Davis Cup captain--was named the French Fed Cup captain. Maria Sharapova launched Sugarpova, her candy line. Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Iveta Benesova both had weddings. And Vika Azarenka added some luster to her star by party-rocking with Redfoo, who has become an enthusiastic WTA supporter.

Even with Petko out for most of the season, there was a lot of dancing. Azarenka danced on court every opportunity she had, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci showed some original moves unlike any others we've seen, Andrea Hlavackova joined the dance craze, and friends Eugenie Bouchard and Laura Robson put together what was probably the video of the year.

Agnieszka Radwanska failed to defend either of her big 2011 Asian titles, but she did win Dubai, Brussels and--significantly--Miami, and she was the runner-up at Wimbledon. Radwanska finished the season as number 4 in the world.

In the doubles world, Liezel Huber continued to confound opponents--but not with her shot-making. This year, she got into it big-time at the Australian Open when she and partner Lisa Raymond played against Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina. Even the usually cool-headed Mirza lost her patience with Huber, who got right in Vesnina's face in front of the umpire's chair. It was quite a show, and included a literal knock-down of Huber by one of those famous fiery Mirza forehands.

Huber and Raymond didn't have the season they were probably expecting, though they did win five titles. Also performing well were Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova. The Russian pair  won the Sony Ericsson Championships in Miami, and they won the WTA Championships in Istanbul. Kirilenko and Petrova were also the runners-up at the French Open.

Continuing their success was the Czech team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka. They won four titles, and they were the runners-up at several events, including Wimbledon, the Olympic Games, the U.S. Open, and the WTA Championships.

Here's my personal 2012 top 10, in ascending order:

10. Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone
Former world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki finally lost her grip on the world's highest ranking. With so many points to defend, and with disappointing results in the majors, Wozniacki slipped out of the top 10 (though she's ending the season as number 10 in the world). The Dane lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (def. by Kim Clijsters), the third round of the French Open (def. by Kaia Kanepi), the first round of Wimbledon (def. by Tamira Paszek), and the first round of the U.S. Open (def. by Irina-Camelia Begu).

Wozniacki worked with coach (really, "co-coach," since her father Peotr was definitely still in the picture) Thomas Johansson until last month. Johansson encouraged her to be more aggressive in her play, since her superb defending has let her down against very powerful players. Wozniacki is an excellent athlete who has made steady improvements over the years, so anything is possible in 2013.

9. The Last Goodbye
Kim Clijsters retired for the second--and final--time this year. Clijsters said goodbye at the U.S. Open, in which she was the defending champion. The (mostly) beloved Belgian was defeated in the second round by Laura Robson, which was too bad, of course, but her leave-taking was so touching that it almost made up (at least, from a fan standpoint) for her early exit. Clijsters, a three-time champion in Flushing Meadows, was given the warm farewell that she deserved, and she--in turn--made her exit from professional tennis with notable gratitude and dignity.

8. I'll Endorse These Czechs
Last year, the Czech Republic was everywhere, dominating the tour in ways that sometimes made me think we had gone into a time machine and were re-visiting the 80s. One of 2011's great Czech Republic accomplishments was the taking of the Fed Cup title. In 2012, the Czech team did it again. They beat Germany 4-1 in the first round, and in the semifinals, they beat Italy 4-1. The team recently defended its title by beating Serbia 3-1 in the final. Petra Kvitova, who had won ten straight Fed Cup matches, wasn't feeling that well (more on that in a moment) during the competition, and--while she handily defeated Jelena Jankovic in the opening rubber--she lost to Ana Ivanovic in the second rubber. It was Lucie Safarova who won both of her matches and led the team to victory.

7. The Radwanska
"At first glance, It seemed to be just a normal being you might pass on the street," we learn, as Maria Sharapova warns her future children in Todd Spiker's hilarious story about the Russian's loss to Agnieszka Radwanska in the Miami final. I was in Charleston watching qualifying rounds the day of the final, but I slipped into the bar to watch the match on television. The next evening, while I was still processing what had happened, I returned to my hotel to find "Watch Out....The Radwanska Might Get You" posted on WTA Backspin. I couldn't stop laughing. I'm still laughing.

For those of us who like to hang out in the Backspin lounge, the concept of The Radwanska has become such a reality that we now just call It "The Rad." The Rad may or may not have been responsible for everything from rain delays to disastrous scheduling to really big upsets that occurred in 2012. We don't know. It seems to have a lot of anger and caprice, and a mind of Its own.

(For those who may have stumbled in here for the first time, you should know that I am actually a big fan of the player, Agnieszka Radwanska.)

"You probably should sleep with one eye open, a night light on, and a heavy racket right next to the bed," Sharapova tells her frightened children in the Backspin scary tale. Well, it does pay to remember that The Radwanska is patient, and waits until you let your guard down, and then it comes for you. Maybe, when it strikes, you'll be prepared.

Perhaps--instead of investing in devices to measure the loudness of players' screams and grunts--the WTA should get down to the really important spiritual business of the tour and figure out a way to cast out The Radwanska.

6. When Is a Rock Not a Rock?
Last year was the Year of Kvitova. The Czech star won six titles, including Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, and she was named the ITF Player of the Year. Petra Kvitova has that something extra, that special quality, that potentially places her above her peers. The clever lefty serve, the wicked angles, the very powerful groundstrokes, and a strategic understanding of the game--these are qualities that earned Kvitova her first major. She also improved her movement, which was one of her few weaknesses.

But Kvitova is fragile in other areas. She plays very aggressive, first-strike tennis most of the time, and if she's "on," good luck to the opponent. But she goes "off" too frequently, creating three-set victories that should have been two-set victories--or just losing altogether. She also sufferes with asthma, and has trouble handling the respiratory demands brought on by the North American humidity during the U.S. Open Series. We saw an improvement in that area this year, as Kvitova actually won the U.S. Open Series when she took home trophies in both Montreal and New Haven.

But Kvitova was sick and injured a lot this year, and just didn't seem to be herself. Of course, if you look at her record for the year, you see a player who did extremely well, despite finishing the season as number 8 in the world (she ended last year as number 2, and her ranking future looked very bright). But when you consider the advantage she had coming into the season, and the huge talent she possesses, you are left only to wonder what I have asked on this blog many times: What's wrong with Petra?

Considered a favorite to win the Australian Open, Kvitova lost to Maria Sharapova in the semifinals. In the French Open, she lost again to Sharapova, again, in the semifinals. At Wimbledon, where she was the defending champion (she beat Sharapova in the 2011 final), she lost to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. She also lost in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games--to Maria Kirilenko. And at the U.S. Open, Kvitova lost to Marion Bartoli in the round of 16. Her attempt to defend her WTA Championships title was destroyed by illness, and she withdrew from competition.

It's worth noting that in two majors, Kvitova lost to the eventual champion. And it's also worth noting that Sharapova has become the Czech star's nemesis (Sharapova also beat her in the Stuttgart semifinals). There's certainly nothing "wrong" with losing to Williams and Sharapova, but Kvitova--who also lost this year to a variety of other players--is simply capable of doing great things, and somehow, the entire season slipped by her, except for her surge during the U.S. Open Series.

Kvitova, already a bit of a late bloomer, gets a fresh start in 2013. Here's hoping that her health is improved, and that we see 2011 Petra again soon.

5. The Real Thing
When Angelique Kerber came out of practically nowhere and reached the semifinals of the 2011 U.S. Open, there were a lot of WTA fans who figured it was just one of those things, and that the German player would return to her journeywoman position the next season--but with a higher ranking. However, that was not the case at all. In 2012, Kerber officially became a force with which to be reckoned. Ending the season with the number 5 ranking, Kerber is now the leading German player, and her athleticism and quick thinking on the court have provided us with a great deal of entertainment. It doesn't hurt that she also has plenty of on-court personality.

Kerber reached the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year. She also reached the quarterfinals of both the French Open and the Olympic Games. The German star won her first two WTA titles in 2012, and there is every reason to believe she'll win more in 2013.

4. It's What's Under the Hoodie That Counts
Surely the WTA has never had a more compelling world number 1 than Victoria Azarenka. The tall, intelligent, candid Belarusian (sometimes resplendent in very cool shorts) walks through the tunnel with her hoodie up and her earphones in, and you know you are about to get an eye- and earful of smackdown Vika. No longer the fragile creature who hurt her thigh or passed out just when things were getting good--Azarenka has overcome a great deal of the mental fragility that held her back before.

The world number 1's 26-match streak, which began at the start of the season (and was finally extinguished in Miami by Marion Bartoli), was an announcement that screamed louder than even Azarenka herself does. Queen Victoria won six titles in 2012--two of them at premier events, and one at the Australian Open. She also won a bronze medal in singles and a gold medal in mixed doubles (playing with Max Mirnyi) at the Olympic Games.

Azarenka can still get angry on the court (and we wouldn't want it any other way), but she now has control. She can serve, she can hit, she can volley, she can dance, and she can be very articulate. She won the Australian Open by dismantling no less than Maria Sharapova, and she pushed Serena Williams to the limit in the U.S. Open final.

3. Que C'est Bon!
She did it. Maria Sharapova achieved her career Slam in 2012 by winning the French Open, the tournament she was expected to "never" win. Her French Open triumph came just in time, too: Sharapova got a beat-down from Victoria Azarenka in the Australian Open final, she lost in the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and then received another beat-down from Serena Williams in the final of the Olympic Games. At the U.S. Open, Sharapova lost to Azarenka in the semifinals, and she lost to Williams in the WTA Championships final in Istanbul.

The Russian star, who has had a difficult path to travel in the past couple of years, won three titles plus Olympic silver in 2012, and ended the season ranked number 2 in the world. All things considered, it was a very good year, made especially sweet by Sharapova's career Slam accomplishment, a rare and enviable feat, and one that secures her place in tennis history.

2. Fighting Italians--Even Better In Pairs
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci were already a well-established and -respected doubles team before the season began. Best known for their amazing Fed Cup play, the Italians had already collected five titles while playing together. In 2012, however, they went on a winning tear, the likes of which is rarely seen.

Errani and Vinci won five titles in a row. They went on a 25-match win streak. They won the French Open and the U.S. Open. In all, they won eight titles this year, and provided fans with a string of thrills that lasted throughout the season. Errani became the number 1 doubles player in the world, then Vinci became the number 1 player, and then the ranking went back to Errani. But does it matter? They are Errani-and-Vinci, they are best friends, and they are Fighting Italians in the tradition of Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone.

There was more. Errani broke through in singles play, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, the final of the French Open, and the semifinals of the U.S. Open. To reach the French Open final, Errani took out two former French Open champions, a former French Open finalist, and Angelique Kerber. It was an unbelievable run. She also won two singles titles, and ended the year ranked number 6 in the world.

And there's even more: Vinci reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, where she lost to--of all people--Errani.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have a real soft spot for the Italian players. They are so tough and so inventive. The now often-injured Pennetta and the increasingly cranky (but still wonderful) Schiavone are probably not far from the ends of their great careers, but Errani and Vinci are giving us all the Italian we can handle. Brava!

1. The Summer of Serena
Here is the first rule of women's tennis: Never ever count out Serena Williams. Throughout her career, Williams has experienced many injuries, and she has always worked with them and through them. I can recall seeing her show up at a big tournament with so much strapping and wrapping on her that she looked like she had been snatched from an Egyptology exhibit. Once, when asked which parts of her were wrapped and taped, she said it would be easier to ask which parts weren't.

Things got really bad in the summer of 2010 when Williams sustained a serious foot injury after some drunk people threw bottles in a German restaurant where she happened to be. She stepped on the broken glass and had to undergo two surgical procedures. She then suffered a hematoma and a pulmonary embolism, and later realized that she might have died from these complications. When she returned to the tour--and of course, she returned to the tour--she experienced many complications, none of which I'll go into here, but fans are familiar with the events of the last couple of seasons.

Five-time Australian Open champion Williams was upset by Ekaterina Makarova in the round of 16 in Melbourne this year. She was totally dominant in Charleston, where she won her second Family Circle Cup title. She handily beat Victoria Azarenka in the Madrid final, but hurt her back in Rome. Nevertheless, she was expected to do well at the French Open. It was in Paris, though, that Williams suffered her first opening-round loss in a major. She was upset by Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano.

Williams stayed in Paris and asked Patrick Mouratoglou to help her. The founder of the Mouratoglou Academy began coaching Williams, and by the time she arrived in London to play at Wiimbledon, she was unstoppable. She won her fifth Wimbledon title, and--with sister Venus--her fifth Wimbledon doubles title. She then won her 43rd WTA title in Stanford, then went back to London and won two Olympic gold medals--one in singles and one in doubles. The career Golden Slam now a reality, the next job for Williams was to go for her 15th major title by winning the U.S. Open, which she did. She beat world number 1 Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 in the final.

Williams went on to win the WTA Championships in Istanbul. She won seven titles in 2012, and four of them were very big indeed. The  31-year-old, often-injured (and for a while, very seriously ill) world number 3 has dominated the tour for a long time. It would be hard to pick a "best year" for her, but there's no doubt that 2012 was very special. The first rule of women's tennis holds today, as much as it ever did, thanks to the Summer of Serena.


Todd.Spiker said...

"I like to think that Azarenka (who also seemed to get taller each time a photo with Allaster was taken) was, too."

...haha. I love that!

Hmmm, I'm think that the evidence is pointing to little "Yuri" & "Yelena" actually being Minions in Disquise. I guess we'll find out in due time. But, when it comes to You-Know-What, never rule out anything. (And keep a watchful eyes on those cats... you did mention It's name in public, after all.)

Great stuff, Diane! ;)

Diane said...

Thanks, Todd :)

I should probably start sleeping with that heavy racket under my bed as soon as possible.......

Diane said...

Well, I thought something looked a bit odd, then I found a paragraph that didn't get pasted into the post. Sorry, everyone; I think it's all in order now.

November 11, 2012 12:35 AM

sabey said...

Surely the WTA has never had a more compelling world number 1 than Victoria Azarenka -the most compelling #1 ever? Surely, you cannot be serious!

bill said...

Great wrap-up, Diane, thank you. I've commented before that Goolagong, Henin, and Serena are my all-time favorite female players - very different players/personalities. As Serena continues her late-career heroics, I'm starting to think that there has never been anyone better in a big match (peace, Steffi, Martina, and Chris).

Diane said...

Thanks, Bill; I'm glad you enjoyed it. Serena's season was truly remarkable. It was interesting to me that on both tours, players who were told to "hang it up" (Serena and Roger) won big titles. People never learn.....

Anonymous said...

Andy Murray and Laura Robson won the Silver Medal, not Bronze, in Mixed Doubles at the Olympics.