PLAYER OF THE YEAR
She played less than her foremost rivals across 2012, but was the victor in no fewer than seven tournaments. She captured her fifth Wimbledon singles championship, her fourth United States Open, her first Olympic gold medal in singles, and the prestigious season-ending TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships in Istanbul. Serena Williams thus was the winner at four of the six most important tournaments in the sport, including indisputably the two most important events of them all. She was victorious in 58 of 62 matches across the season. Her year was almost immaculate, but not entirely.
Williams was upended in the fourth round of the Australian Open by an inspired left-hander named Ekaterina Makarova, which was not the way she wanted to start the season. At the French Open, she was beaten for the first time ever in the opening round of a Grand Slam event, suffering from extreme anxiety while bowing out against Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros. She had played 46 majors previously without losing a first round match at a major, but Williams needlessly let this one get away from her. She won the first set and built a 5-1 lead in the second set tie-break, but failed to close out the contest.
When I wrote my column at the end of October lauding Williams as the best player in the world despite her official status at No. 3 in the world on the year-end WTA Computer, I was surprised by how many readers disagreed vehemently with me. Some learned observers clearly believe Williams had only herself to blame for not finishing 2012 as the top ranked player in the game, and they criticized her severely for doing so poorly in Melbourne and Paris. The view here is very different. She could have played a few more tournaments after the Open, and that might have pushed her past her chief rivals to the top of the ladder. She should have gone to the latter stages of the seasons first two majors.
And yet, the fact remains that she achieved considerably more than anyone else in her field over the course of 2012. She played the best tennis of any female player, set the highest standards, and was unassailably the finest competitor in her profession. She was unbeaten against both Azarenka and Sharapova. Player of the Year in 2012? Hands down: Serena Williams.
SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR
At 29, a stylish Belgian said her farewell to competitive tennis, waving goodbye to her staple of loyal fans after losing in the second round at the U.S. Open, bringing smiles to the faces of the sports veteran followers who came to appreciate her rare and enormously appealing blend of poise and self-restraint. Kim Clijsters will surely take her place at the International Tennis Hall of Fame someday. She secured three U.S. Open singles titles, captured one Australian Open crown, and resided at No. 1 in the world. Clijsters had planned to retire in 2007. She had already become the top ranked woman in the world, and had taken the U.S. Open once.
But her best work was done after returning to the game as a mother in 2009. She resumed her career that summer after being gone for more than two years, and was an immensely popular U.S. Open champion that year. She was victorious again at the Open in 2010, and then added the Australian Open to her collection the following January. Clijsters did not fare particularly well in 2012. She played only 26 matches, winning 20, losing the battles of real consequence. Her most impressive showing was a run to the semifinals of the Australian Open at the start of the year. Thereafter, her form declined.
But what mattered most about Kim Clijsters was this: she departed with an understated class that had long been her trademark. She went out in style, without compromising her integrity. She reminded us that seldom has a player of her stature been more gracious, commendable and dignified. The way I look at it, she was in a class by herself as the Sportswoman of the Year in 2012.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF 2012
Great Britains Laura Robson was ranked No. 131 in the world at the end of 2011. She missed two months early in that campaign with a hip injury, and was gone for another three weeks in April with a stomach muscle problem. In many ways, that 2011 season was a washout, and Robson never had the chance to fully explore her potential. But that was not the case in 2012. She soared in the rankings up to No. 53 at the end of the year. At 18, this highly appealing left-hander essentially came into her own, toppling adversaries with large reputations, gathering steam, building inner belief every step of the way. Until the summer of 2012, the left-handed Robson took an awful lot of hard setbacks, but she emerged in a substantial way at the U.S. Open.
In New York, Robson went to the round of 16 at the last major of the season, halting the No. 23 seed Clijsters and No. 9 Li Na back to back before losing to Sam Stosur. That fortnight might have changed Robson forever. She is a remarkable shot maker, bold and inventive, capable of sheer brilliance off the ground. Robson improved immensely in 2012, and will surely get even better in 2013.
MOST SURPRISING PERFORMER OF 2012
The womens game these days is heavily populated by tall and imposing players. Maria Sharapova, for example, is 62. Victoria Azarenka stands 6 feet tall. Serena Williams is 59. That trend is not going to change. It is almost a prerequisite these days to be not only strong and durable, but also strikingly tall and athletic. That is the way it is; that is the way it will continue to be.
But a perspicacious Italian with a big heart and a much smaller physical frame burst into prominence in 2012 and demonstrated in the process that there are exceptions to every rule. Sara Errani is 54 ½, but she was magnificent in taking four tournament titles during the year. On defense, few can equal her tenacity and temerity. She was runner-up to Sharapova at the French Open, a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, and a semifinalist at the U.S. Open. Her results demonstrate that Errani is much more than a clay court player. She concluded 2012 at No. 6 in the world after finishing the previous four seasons ranked between No. 42 and No. 48. It was no accident that she rose to that lofty region of the sport. Errani brought freshness, supreme grit and originality to the womens game all year long.
MOST ENDURING PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Who else but Maria Sharapova? Only once before in her illustrious careerback in 2006had Sharapova finished a year at No. 2 in the world. She achieved that same status in 2012 because she was so resolute, so thoroughly professional, so singularly determined to find greatness in her game. Sharapova had captured her first Grand Slam championship in 2004 on the lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon. Two years later, she was victorious at the U.S. Open. In 2008, she came through at the Australian Open. But, in 2012, she somehow garnered the only major that had eluded her grasp, taking the French Open crown to complete a well-deserved career Grand Slam.
Only the authentically elite players have recorded career Grand Slams. Residing in that exclusive territory among the women are Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, Maureen Connolly, Doris Hart, and Shirley Fry. But so many top of the line players in recent years have had to settle for winning three of the four majors. Martina Hingis was three points away from realizing a career Grand Slam when she served for the match against Steffi Graf at the 1999 French Open, but the Swiss stylist was denied that cherished prize by the stalwart powerhouse from Germany. Hingis never ruled at Roland Garros. Lindsay Davenport won all of the majors except for Roland Garros as well. Justine Henin never won Wimbledon despite claiming all of the others. Evonne Goolagong made it to four U.S. Open singles finals in the 1970s but never won it, and she was therefore excluded from the career Grand Slam club. Monica Seles was one match away from a career Grand Slam but was soundly beaten by Steffi Graf in the 1992 Wimbledon final.
And so Sharapova is in very good company. She is the tenth womanand the 17th playerever to win all four major singles championships. Winning on the red clay of Roland Garros in 2012 was perhaps the most admirable achievement yet for one of the most strong-willed competitors ever to step on a court.
BIGGEST UNDERACHIEVER OF THE YEAR
This is a label that must be worn by Sam Stosur. Here is a woman with a multi-faceted all court game, the best second serve in womens tennis, an excellent inside-out forehand, and technique of the highest order on the volley. Stosur has all of the tools to be a great tennis player. All that seems to be missing is the right temperament. In 2012, she could well have been in her second French Open final but she was not the competitor she needed to be in the crunch of a tough semifinal contest with Errani. At the U.S. Open, she lost a heartbreaker to world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals, bowing in a final set tie-break. And so Stosur did not do the same justice to her talent as she had in 2011, when she struck down Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open.
Stosur remained a front line player in 2012. She finished the year stationed at No. 9 in the world. She played some terrific tennis. She fought hard in pursuit of the largest prizes in tennis. But she did not believe in herself the way champions must. Stosur did not accomplish on a scale that fits her talent. I hope she will make amends in 2013.
AZARENKA MOVES TO THE TOP
At the outset of this piece, I made my case for Serena Williams at the bona fide best player in womens tennis, and I stand by it. But the fact remains that Victoria Azarenka had a magnificent year in 2012, the finest of her career. In many ways, she finished the season at No. 1 in the world because she commenced the year so impeccably. Azarenka was unstoppable in the early stages of 2012, tough and concentrated, confident and commanding, unwavering and highly charged. She won her first four tournaments, and took 26 matches in a row before losing to Marion Bartoli in Miami. The highlight of that stretch was undoubtedly her convincing victory at the Australian Open. She collected her first career major title in Melbourne, crushing Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the final. Azarenka understandably could not sustain that pace, but she was remarkably consistent all year long. Her return of serve is outstanding, her court sense is excellent, and she keeps her mind on the task at hand as well as anyone. Azarenka climbed to No. 3 in the world in 2011, but in 2012 she played the highest quality tennis of her career, and was rewarded handsomely for it.
MATCH OF THE YEAR
Three different women took major singles title in 2012, with Serena Williams taking the top honors at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Azarenka ruling in Melbourne and Sharapova prevailing at the French Open. But while there were a good many enthralling battles fought out between and among the top players, it was not a year for epics.
I did not think the Serena Williams-Azarenka U.S. Open final was one of the great tennis matches of all time. But I did see it clearly as the best match of the year. There was so much riding on the occasion for both players. Azarenka wanted to underline her status as the top ranked player in the world by claiming her second major of 2012. Williams was on a phenomenal roll after winning Wimbledon and the Olympic Games. Two of the top three players in the world were fighting for the last major crown of the year, and it was a gripping encounter on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Williams took the first set comprehensively, stepping into her returns convincingly, serving prodigiously, rising ably to the occasion. But her feet seemed frozen in the second set, and Azarenka rallied valiantly, outperforming Williams decidedly from the baseline, and making second serve returns of the top caliber.
The third set was suspenseful from beginning to end. Azarenka moved ever so close to recording the biggest victory of her career. She took a 5-3 lead in the final set, and seemed poised to close out the account on her terms. Williams was serving to stay alive in that ninth game of the final set, and Azarenka was two points from winning the match with the score locked at 30-30. But she went for a non-percentage forehand down the line and missed. Serena held on. With Azarenka serving for the match at 5-4, the 23-year-old from Belarus could not handle the weight of an emotional moment. She made three unforced errors, lost her serve at 15, and thereafter Williams was unswerving. The American prevailed 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. Williams succeeded largely on willpower, and it was surely her most gratifying victory in the entire 2012 season.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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