December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas...

On this day, when one particular birth is celebrated around the globe, I thought it appropriate to pay tribute to a few others -- a couple new, and likely lasting, rivalries emerged this year in the sport of tennis. Once dominated by Roger vs. Rafa and Venus vs. Serena, the tide shifted in 2011, and we were treated to one rematch after another, sometimes setting the stage for a new guard in the coming year.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Vera Zvonareva

For two players who've been on Tour for what seems like ages, it's kind of funny that these two only met once before this year started -- in Moscow, way back in 2007. Vera was #24 at the time, Aggie #33, but the Russian had already cracked the top ten and had earned a handful of titles, including Cincinnati. Both had career highs since then -- Zvonareva was a two-time Major finalist, and the Pole had become a regular inhabitant of the single- and low double-digits -- but the scales were tipped handily to Vera's side when they faced each other again in Miami.

Zvonareva took their quarterfinal match at the Sony Ericsson Open, but that's about as far as she went. Radwanska pulled off a huge upset of the top seed in the Carlsbad final and repeated a few weeks later in Toronto. After a couple early losses late in the summer, Aggie captured her second title of the year at Vera's expense in Tokyo and was on quite a year-end roll when she scored her fourth win in a row against the former #2 in Istanbul. Zvonareva ends the year a spot ahead in the rankings, but things could change pretty quickly in the new year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Pole make a real move to establish herself as one to beat in 2012.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Roger Federer

These guys met eight times this year -- eight. And when things started, it looked pretty much the way you thought it would. Federer didn't drop a set in the first six they played, beating the Frenchman on his way to the Doha title and again in the Rome second round. He got himself to a seemingly insurmountable lead in the Wimbledon quarters, but then something seemed to go wrong. After pulling off the most unlikely of upsets, Tsonga then repeated in Montreal, beating Roger again in the round of sixteen.

Things went back to normal after that -- Federer notched a straight set victory in New York and captured his first ever Paris title, beating Tsonga in straight sets. At the year-end championships in London, the Swiss giant underscored his success, backing up a round robin victory with a three-set win in the final. He still holds a fairly one-sided 8-3 record over Jo-Wilfried, but as the Frenchman continues to improve his game, that all could change pretty quickly.

Victoria Azarenka vs. Petra Kvitova

Azarenka had the edge over Kvitova before the year began -- a year older and a bit quicker to mature, she was already ranked #26 in the world when she first beat the Czech at Prague in 2008. But things began changing last year at the All England Club, when the eventual semifinalist bagelled the fourteenth seed in the second set of their third round match.

And this year was, clearly, all about Kvitova. The pair met on all three surfaces in 2011, first on clay in the Madrid finals, then the Wimbledon semis and again playing on hard court for the year-end championship. And though the matches were close, they all went in favor of the upstart -- Vika was the on-paper favorite everywhere but Istanbul. Now ranked #2 and #3 in the world, either could take over the top spot after the Australian Open, and if they keep up their level of play, we could see the two of them battling for a bunch more titles in the years to come.

Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic

These two were no strangers before 2011 -- but in twenty-three previous meetings, the Spaniard held a large and intimidating 16-7 advantage. He'd won all their battles at Majors and every time a title was on the line. He'd lost just a handful of sets on clay, never more than one a match. When the year began, he'd spent more than eighty weeks as the #1 player in the world and had just managed to capture the career Grand Slam. He was sitting on top of the world, with Djokovic right below him.

Then everything changed.

They first met in the Indian Wells final, where Rafa took the early lead but eventually Nole rebounded to take the crown. A few weeks later in Miami we saw a similar story, though this time the Serb was pushed to a tiebreak in the third set before earning the win. We all figured things would revert once we hit the dirt, but Nole stunned the clay-court King in Madrid and again in Rome, where pundits assured us conditions favored Rafa. Then Djokovic really turned up the heat, taking his game to the Majors and decisively handing losses to the defending champion at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

It seems only right that Rafa and Nole just met in championship rounds this year. They end the year as the top-ranked men in the sport and they spent the entire year proving it. It's certainly not the way we expected things to play out over the last twelve months, but if they stay in shape, things could get really interesting in the ones that follow.

As we get ready to start a new season, it'll be interesting to see whether these same rivalries will continue in 2012 -- and whether the results will remain the same. Some of these players are clearly carrying the momentum now, but things can change at the drop of a hat. And whoever is going to keep the advantage is going to have to bring it.

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