January 7, 2012

Same Stories, Different Characters

At this time last year, did anyone think Novak Djokovic would dominate the men's Tour quite like he did? Or that Petra Kvitova would rise quite as high as she did? Well, it may be a long shot to hope for headlines quite so dramatic in 2012, but some players are already doing the best they can to make this year the best of their careers -- and we may just see some parallels this season.

The women's draw in Brisbane was plagued from the start -- top seeded Sam Stosur lost her second round in straight sets, and Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, together the winners for the last three years in Melbourne, both pulled out mid-week with injuries.

So it's no real surprise that two unseeded players made their way to the finals. Daniela Hantuchova, the beneficiary of Serena's walkover and Kim's retirement, had first battled through two three-setters in her early rounds, and Kaia Kanepi, a runner-up at last year's final tournament in Moscow, dominated her matches the second half of the week, ousting second-seed Andrea Petkovic and 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in straight sets.

Hantuchova had a perfect record against the Estonian in their last three meetings, but Kanepi has been steadily improving her game since an Achilles injury hampered her play in 2011. Currently ranked #34 in the world, she struck first in Saturday's final, breaking the on-paper favorite in the fifth game of the match and building a nine-game win streak. It took a couple tries to close out the match, but finally on her fourth championship point, Kanepi clinched her victory, the second trophy of her career.

So what's in store for her? Remember that last year's winner in Brisbane was none other than Kvitova herself, also ranked #34 at the time, also the second title of her then-nascent career. Of course it's too early to say Kanepi will go on to win Wimbledon and the year-end championships -- but she is a three-time Major quarterfinalist, and clearly on the rise. At the very least, she should become a much more dominant force on the WTA this year.

As for the men, remember how Djokovic rode his 2010 Davis Cup momentum into a record-setting run in 2011? Well, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga may not have quite the same streak going now, but he did make the finals of his last two tournaments, each time losing to a reinvigorated Roger Federer. This week in Doha, he was slated to meet the world #3 again in semis, but the defending champion withdrew with back pain and gave Tsonga a ticket to the finals.

In the other half of the draw, countryman Gael Monfils had worked his way through a tough draw himself -- after surviving a three-set scare at the hands of Benjamin Becker, he rolled through Viktor Troicki and confounded Rafael Nadal in the semis, only his second ever win over the former #1. It seemed he's be able to capitalize on that victory, breaking Tsonga early, but the slightly higher-ranked player turned the tables, ultimately winning the match in just under two hours. It was his eighth career title -- ten fewer than what Djokovic had going into his banner 2011. Still, heading to the Major where he's had the most success -- a semifinalist in 2010 and runner-up in 2008 -- this could be his best opportunity to really break through.

Of course it's rare to see the dominating performances we were treated to last year, and the chances we're in for anything remotely close to a repeat are slim. But the way these athletes are playing, it sure looks like even bigger things are coming for them.

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