December 9, 2012

The 2012 Tennis Spin Awards: The Ladies

It's been a strange and exciting year in the WTA. As we wrap up the 2012 season, the rankings look a little different from just twelve months ago -- we have a new #1, some brand new faces in the top ten, and a couple recent mainstays missing. We saw success come from the most unlikely of places, a couple players storm back onto the scene, and sadly some leave the game entirely, either through retirement of because of some less-than-stellar on court results.

And all that action has given us a lot of fodder for this year's Tennis Spin Awards, so hold on to your hats!

Hottest NewcomerMost Improved
One to WatchBest Comeback
Least Follow-ThroughGreatest Letdown
Biggest SurpriseGutsiest Win
Best Non-Slam FinalBest Slam Final
Doubles Team of the YearPlayer of the Year

Hottest Newcomer

Last year I gave this award to American Christina McHale, thanks to her jump from #115 to #42 in the world. She didn't fail to follow through, either -- though illness kept her quiet in the back half of 2012, she did rise to a high of #24 in August on the heels of wins over Petra Kvitova in Indian Wells and Caroline Wozniacki in Eastbourne. So hopefully this year's newcomer -- and there were several to choose from -- will live up to the legacy McHale has set.

The Nominees

The Netherlands' Kiki Bertens began her year with a couple of ITF titles, but made her first dent on Tour in April when, as a qualifier, she worked her way to the Fes title with wins over two seeded players. She played her first Major main draw in Paris, and got her first win a month later by upsetting Lucie Safarova at Wimbledon. She made the second round in New York, too, defeating McHale, and scored an upset of Nadia Petrova in Montreal. She ends the year at #63 in the world, a shade off her career high ranking, but still a full hundred-plus spots higher than where she started it. If she follows through, I wouldn't be surprised to see her rise farther in the new year.

Heather Watson didn't make as big a jump, but the young Brit also laid claim to her first Tour title this year when she took the title in Osaka. She didn't have to face the most formidable opponents at that event, but with wins over Sloane Stephens in Stanford, Lucie Safarova in Miami and struggling Sabine Lisicki in Tokyo, she certainly has proven she can hit with the big girls. She ends the year just inside the top fifty, her highest career ranking, but seems to be in a place to climb higher in the months that come.

Compatriot Laura Robson may not have won a title in 2012, but she pulled off some of the most high-profile wins on the season. She started out a little slow, didn't win a Tour-level match until June in Birmingham, but once she lit the fuse it refused to go out. She took out two seeds to make the Palermo semis and paired with Andy Murray to win Olympic Silver. But her biggest successes came the next month -- the eighteen year old was responsible for ending Kim Clijsters' singles career in New York and proved she was no one-trick pony by beating red-hot Na Li a round later. She made her way to the Guangzhou final, too, helping her rise to #53 in the world, but if she kicks off 2013 the same way she ended 2012, she's probably got further to go.

The Winner

This might be a slightly controversial call, partly because twenty-two year old Urszula Radwanska has been a pro since 2005, and so maybe isn't a newcomer, and partly because she hasn't grabbed quite as many headlines as her British contemporaries, and so maybe isn't the "hottest". But while her sister finally made it clear why she belonged in the sport's elite, the younger URad very quietly snuck her way into Slam-seeding territory. Urszula had a couple notable wins this year -- she beat Francesca Schiavone in Moscow and Ana Ivanovic in Tokyo -- made the final in 's-Hertogenbosch and, maybe most interestingly, notched the only break of Serena Williams' serve at the Olympics. She hasn't won a title yet, but she's shown she's not living in her sister's shadow and I don't think it will be long before she gets that crown.

Most Improved

While all these ladies really burst on the scene this year, a couple veterans used the season to really make a mark on Tour. Whether they won their first title, rose up the rankings, or established themselves as a part of the elite, each had their biggest successes to date in 2012. And hopefully, like Roberta Vinci who took the award last year, they'll only use this as a jumping board for more wins in the future.

The Nominees

Agnieszka Radwanska has been a staple in the top ten for years, so it would be hard for her to make a big jump in the standings. Still with three titles early in the season, a huge performance in the Wimbledon final, and a run to the year-end semis, she ends the year at #4 in the world, even getting within one title of taking over #1. She may still struggle against the power players -- Victoria Azarenka was the only woman she lost to in the first four months of the year, and Serena Williams made up for a close one at the All England Club with a total domination in Istanbul -- but she does have eight wins over top ten players this year. And as long as she stays healthy she might still get another chance to bring home the big titles.

Angelique Kerber ascendance actually started about eighteen months ago -- but after surprising everyone and making the semis at last year's U.S. Open as a qualifier, she really found her game in 2012. She beat Marion Bartoli and Maria Sharapova to take the title in Paris, and stunned hometown hero Caroline Wozniacki to get the Copenhagen crown. She was winless in three round robin matches at her debut year-end championships, but nevertheless made some real headway at the Slams, even handing Serena Williams her only defeat since the French Open. She ends the year #5 in the world -- impressive considering the German was in triple digits back in August 2011. As long as she can improve her consistency, Kerber looks well on her way to stay in the big leagues.

Sara Errani very easily could have become a one-hit wonder this year. She's one of those veteran also-rans, who'd been hanging around just in the top fifty for years -- she'd finished each of the last four seasons ranked in the forties -- and was never really able to take her game into the elite. But something changed in 2012 -- she crushed her way to the quarterfinals in Australia, surpassing her previous best efforts at seventeen Slams by two rounds. Then she practically swept the clay court season, taking titles in Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest before stunning the world at Roland Garros. The twenty-first seed in Paris, she took out 2008 champ Ana Ivanovic, breakout star Angelique Kerber and defending U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur to reach her first Major final. She was decimated in the championship match and might have slithered off into the sunset, but she went on to pick up another trophy in Palermo and prove she could also hit off clay with a semi showing in New York. Now solidly in the top ten, she even was a stone's throw from making it past the round robins in her premier year-end event. Her surprise rise into the elite may have been a long-time coming, but it was more unexpected, and by keeping it up through every part of the season, she might have shown she's got even further left to go.

All these ladies may have made their first big strides into the sport's top levels, grabbing headlines throughout the season, but there were some others who also made some big jumps while flying way more under the radar. Kirsten Flipkens has been on Tour for almost a decade but spent most of that time out of the top hundred. Still, with her more famous compatriots now out of the game entirely, she was quick to take the reins. She beat Roberta Vinci and Sam Stosur to make the semis in 's-Hertogenbosch and stunned three seeds in Quebec City to capture her first career title. She finishes the year at her highest-ever ranking, just outside the top fifty, and with additional wins over Sabine Lisicki, Dominika Cibulkova and Ana Ivanovic, it sure seems like she has some more to show us in the new year.

The Winner

Su-Wei Hsieh was just as off the grid when the 2012 season started, but she set off to change that right at the start. Pro since 2001 she had finished only one year in the last eleven in triple digits, but had made quite a dent on the ITF Tour, bringing home twenty-three titles in the junior league. But the qualifier made the semis in Pattaya City just a week before finally capturing that maiden crown in Kuala Lumpur and, despite a middling middle part of the season, ended the fall with another in Guangzhou. The two International crowns were enough to extend her season, and she took a trip to the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, the only participant there with more than one title on the year. Now ranked #25 in the world, she's easily the most successful player to come out of Chinese Taipei, and while she may not be a household name quite yet, she just might be heading there soon.

One to Watch

It wasn't all about the on-paper improvements in 2012 -- not everybody made huge jumps up the rankings, captured that maiden trophy, or even were able to end a long title-less run. Some players made some big strides in their game without earning any real acknowledgement of their accomplishments. But very quietly these ladies put up some of the biggest fights on court this year, caused some of the most surprising upsets, and clinched some huge wins -- and the winner did her best to remind us that she has no intention of sneaking away. So here's to the women who established a platform that could make themselves huge forces in the new season.

The Nominees

Sofia Arvidsson is another one of those veterans who've picked up a big win or two over the years, but never really made a dent in the big leagues. But in 2012 she returned to Memphis where she won her first and only title six years before and came away a winner again. It wasn't the most impressive feat of her year, though -- no one in the top fifty was in her path -- but come fall she was able to turn on another gear. She beat Lucie Safarova in Linz, Maria Kirilenko and Marion Bartoli -- definitively so -- in Moscow. She earned a alternate slot to the Tournament of Champions, and though she only got half a match in during round robins, really ended the year with some of her best stuff. If she can pull that momentum into 2013, she might be able to make another run to get back into the sport's elite.

I've had my eye on Ekaterina Makarova for a few years now. Two years back she beat -- wait for it -- Flavia Pennetta, Nadia Petrova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur, and Victoria Azareanka as a qualifier to take the Eastbourne title. A year later she made the fourth round at both the Australian and French Opens and reached a then-high ranking just in the top thirty. But she failed to get any real traction in the months that followed and ended 2011 with four wins in her last thirteen tournaments. She began this season ranked #54 in the world and had to qualify for Sydney, but when she hit the hard courts in Melbourne she really took off. After beating red-hot Kaia Kanepi and struggling Vera Zvonareva, the tiny Russian stunned heavy favorite Serena Williams to make her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. She scored a couple more upsets throughout the year, and while none can quite compare to that particular victory, she was able to end the season just in the top twenty. Having established herself a more consistent force in 2012, she might just be primed for a breakthrough in the new year.

Lucie Safarova's year was a little more up and down. She won just three matches at Majors in 2012 and lost in eleven first rounds in total. On the other hand, she did beat Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki in Doha, Vera Zvonareva on her way to the Charleston final, and shocked Sam Stosur in Montreal. She was also the most unlikely of heroes in all of the Czech Republic's Fed Cup matches -- when the championship tie came down to her final rubber, she raised her level of play against former world #1 Jelena Jankovic, a woman she'd only beaten once in their previous six meetings, and secured a second straight trophy for her compatriots. Somehow, quietly, she rose to a career-high ranking to end the year, and though she may not have put up any big numbers on the year, she seems to have set herself up to make some big strides when she gets back on the courts.

Also sneaking up the rankings this year was top-thirty staple Maria Kirilenko. The pretty Russian has finished all but one of the last seven years among those elite, but strangely hasn't won a singles title since 2008. Still, this year she came pretty darn close -- she worked her way to the final in Pattaya City, even taking a set off Daniela Hantuchova in the championship match. But her success wasn't just at the smaller tournaments -- she took Maria Sharapova to three sets in the Indian Wells, made Aggie Radwanska fight in the Wimbledon quarters, and came within spitting distance of an Olympic medal -- she did eventually win Bronze in doubles. Now a shade of her #12 ranking, she enters 2013 knowing she can hit with the big girls and may finally be ready to get the payoff she's been waiting so long for.

The Winner

Andrea Petkovic, sadly, wasn't able to put up many numbers at all this year. One of the nominees for most improved player last year, the fun-loving and well-liked German was sidelined most of this season with various injuries. She notched a couple wins in January before a lower back injury took her out of the game until April, then an ankle problem forced her to miss the summer stretch. It took a while for her to get her groove back once she returned in August -- she won just two matches from New Haven to Linz -- but things improved at the tail end of the year. Having seen her ranking tank from #9 last October to nearly #200 twelve months later, she made good on a wildcard in Luxembourg, beating Jelena Jankovic to make the semis and even beat top seed Nina Bratchikova to reach the final four in Pune. Still ranked deep in triple digits, she at last seems to remember what it takes to win, and if she stays healthy in the new year, I'd expect her to make a big push back into the top tier pretty quickly.

Best Comeback

While a bunch of players seemed to come out of nowhere this year, there were plenty who seemed to rise from the ashes. Out of the picture for months and years for various reasons, these women stormed back onto the courts in 2012, causing (technical) upsets, jumping up the rankings and reminding us all they're not going anywhere.

The Nominees

Aleksandra Wozniak had been one of those players who hung out in the middle tiers of the sport for years. Her only title came four years ago, but it was a big one -- Stanford! -- and in the year that followed she notched wins over the likes of Nadia Petrova, Marion Bartoli, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur. But a wrist injury in 2010 severely hampered her season last year, and she dropped well into the triple digits. The young Canadian played a lot of qualifying rounds early in the year and won an ITF title in the spring, but really upped her game once she was squarely back on Tour. She very nearly beat Venus Williams in Miami, ousted Christina McHale in Charleston and took out three higher-ranked players to make the quarters in Montreal. She ends the year at #43, still more than double her all-time high ranking, and did miss the last few months with another injury, but if she can recoup in the off-season we might just see her make another comeback in 2013.

Venus Williams pulled off what seems to be her fiftieth career comeback in 2012, and at thirty-two years old did her part to prove that age is really no object in this sport. The five-time Wimbledon champion had announced late last year her battle with Sjogren's Syndrome and took a leave of absence after the U.S. Open. She came back in Miami unseeded and ranked in the triple digits, but survived three straight three-setters to make the quarterfinals, notching wins over then-#3 Petra Kvitova and former #1 Ana Ivanovic. She put up some strong results later in the season too, beating clay-court specialist Sam Stosur in Rome and making the semis in Cincinnati. Her coup came at the end of the season, however, when she dropped just one set in Luxembourg, capturing her first title in over two years. As the clear elder-stateswoman of the sport, there's no telling how much longer we'll have her around, so the fact that she's still got the drive to fight her way back to #24 in the world speaks volumes for her character.

The Winner

But perhaps the greatest comeback came from a woman you might never have noticed was around in the first place. Yaroslava Shvedova had previously peaked just outside the top thirty two years ago, buoyed by a quarterfinal run at the 2010 French Open. She also made quite a name for herself on the doubles circuit, winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year. She struggled with knee problems in 2011 though, and with just four singles wins in the first seven months of the year, saw her ranking fall out of the top two hundred. But she clearly turned the tables in 2012 -- after some qualifying losses, she eventually put together a couple ITF title runs and started causing stress to the sport's elite. She beat defending French Open champ Na Li in the Roland Garros third round, dealt soaring Sara Errani a Golden Set at Wimbledon, and even took a set of Serena Williams at the All England Club. With some big and unexpected wins against the very best the sport has to offer -- just when we'd come to expect so little from her -- Shvedova's put herself in just the right place to really strike next year.

Least Follow-Through

For all that was good in the world of tennis this year, there was inevitably some bad. Some players who started off the season with a bang fell off the radar by fall, and a couple were such non-entities you might easily have missed them if you blinked.

The Runner-Up

Tamira Paszek was one of those Juniors players that made everyone stand up and take notice. A contemporary of Caroline Wozniacki some six or seven years ago, she was the Girls' champion at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and picked up her first ITF title in 2005. In 2007, her first full year on the big girls' Tour, she made the fourth round in both the back-half Slams. She went radio silent for a few years after that, but managed to make the quarters at the All England Club in 2011 before going back into hibernation. Things had seemed to turn the corner in 2012, though -- after going 2-13 to start the year, she beat five higher-ranked players in a row to take the Eastbourne title and followed up with a first round come-from-behind victory against Wozniacki at Wimbledon. She rode that success to another quarterfinal and even made a nice run in Montreal a month later. But she's gone 4-8 since then, beating no player ranked in the top forty. CLearly the girl knows how to play, but if she's only going to score wins during the shortest part of the season it might not bode well for her overall prospects.

The Winner

Mona Barthel's success came a little earlier in the year and from an even less expected place. The twenty-two year old German was entirely off the radar when she came to Hobart, battled through three qualifying rounds, and then defeated four top-thirty five players in a row to win her first Tour title. She made the third round in Melbourne and the quarters in Paris, nearly handed world #1 Victoria Azarenka her first loss of the year in Indian Wells and even put up some one-sided wins in Miami. But her strong results were few and far between in the latter part of 2012. She lost six straight matches from May through July and her only significant win the rest of the year came over injury-plagued Daniela Hantuchova in New Haven -- she pulled out of the event right after that match. She's been able to hold onto a top-forty ranking to finish off the year, but if she doesn't deliver quickly in 2013, it could be a sharp fall back down the ladder.

Greatest Letdown

While each of these ladies seemed to lose the momentum they'd gained at various parts of the year, a few others wholly seemed to dissolve in 2012. Having made huge strides throughout their careers, they'd given us such high hopes, but for a variety of reasons -- not always their fault -- they failed to deliver in 2012.

The Nominees

It may not be fair to stick Vera Zvonareva in this category, since the one-time world #2 missed all post-Olympic events due to illness, but given the epic meltdowns she's had in the past, it's easy to be disappointed. Of course Bepa's been around for years and has some huge titles under her belt. But people really started to take notice of her two years ago, when she rocked her way to the Wimbledon final with upsets of Yanina Wickmayer, Jelena Jankovic, and -- most shockingly -- Kim Clijsters. She was clearly heartbroken by her performance in the championship match, but seemed to have regrouped when she made another run to the final in New York. She remained Major-less, though, and dropped a few ranking points over the next twelve months when she was unable to defend too many of those points. I was hoping for a resurgence in 2012, and a run to the doubles title in Australia seemed to bode well for her -- but a slew of injuries kept her from doing too much damage on Tour, and after her season was cut short, she saw her ranking drop to nearly triple digits. And given her history of volatile reactions to previous setbacks, I'm not sure what her chances of recovery from this one are.

Admittedly Caroline Wozniacki kept herself from becoming the clear winner in this category with her performance over the last three months. Having started the year at #1 in the world, she continued to satisfy her detractors by not living up to her seeding at the biggest events, against the best opponents. She lost in the quarters of the Australian Open to Kim Clijsters and in the third round of Paris to Kaia Kanepi. She had moments of brilliance, though, out-playing Serena Williams every step of the way in the Miami quarters, but also fell in five first rounds, including the last to Slams of the year. Through the U.S. Open last year she had won six titles -- in the same period of 2012, she'd won zero. By the time she took to the courts in Seoul, she'd dropped out of the top ten for the first time in three and a half years. With such middling results all season, it seemed the Dane had proven everyone right -- she couldn't perform when the pressure was on. Lucky for her, though, she got things back on tract in September. She took the title in Korea and picked up another in Moscow for good measure, pulling off a stunning defeat of Sam Stosur in the final. She came in second at the Tournament of Champions, but did manage to climb back to #10. If she keeps up the momentum, hopefully she'll get her name in a totally different category next year.

The Winner

Momentum doesn't necessarily last, though, and that was abundantly clear in Sabine Lisicki's case. Last year's winner for Comeback of the Year took a severe turn for the worse in 2011. The injuries that had largely taken her out of the game in 2010, just after she was putting the pieces together to become one of the greats in this sport, came back with a vengeance this season. It wasn't all bad, of course -- she made the fourth round in Melbourne, got revenge over Maria Sharapova in the Wimbledon quarters, and climbed to #12 in the rankings -- but with just one win in six events after the grass court season ended, she took a bit of a tumble in the back half of the year. Her results may have been hampered by health issues, but after the surge we saw from Lisicki in 2012, it's more than a little disappointing to know her body may not hold up long enough to show us how much she can really do.

Biggest Surprise

There were upsets all year, of course, breakthroughs and flame-outs. But some of the biggest surprises in 2012 came from players we'd either written off or never considered threats.

The Runner-Up

Nadia Petrova has been at or near the top of the sport for the better part of a decade and finished the last nine years in the top thirty. She peaked at #3 in the world a little over six years ago after making at least the quarterfinals of four straight Grand Slams. But she can also be pretty darn volatile -- she lost twice this year to sub-hundred Italian Camila Giorgi, beat Sam Stosur in Indian Wells then immediately lost to Maria Kirilenko, beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Charleston and lost the next round to Polona Hercog. She put up a fight against Serena Williams in Rome, but lost a week later in straight sets to Tsvetana Pironkova in Brussels. But just when we'd begun to write her off as a flake, she really upped her game -- she had won a title in 's-Hertogenbosch just before Wimbledon, but faced a much tougher field when she took the court in Tokyo -- just barely seeded she took out three top-ten players for the title. True to form she lost her next two matches after that, but went on to first win the year-end championship in doubles and regroup quickly enough to storm through the draw in Sofia. Petrova finishes the season with her highest year-end ranking since 2008, but more importantly showed she might bring a little more to the table than we thought she could. And if the thirty year old keeps up her game, she could easily continue to surprise us next season.

The Winner

Some of the most interesting wins this year though came, not from just one player, but from a group that fit an often ignored category. Many women who usually see their greatest successes on the doubles court really broke out this year when out on their own. Of course the year-end doubles champions have each made strides on the singles circuit for ages, and the most successful team in 2012 were also breakthrough acts themselves. But it didn't stop there -- long-time doubles champ Elena Vesnina pulled off three straight-set upsets in a row to make the Budapest final, but couldn't quite clinch a win. A few weeks later Lucie Hradecka, twice a Slam finalist this year, served her way to the semis in Madrid as a qualifier, beating Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur in the process. Her partner Andrea Hlavackova even broke into double digit rankings on her own -- after upsetting Klara Zakopalova in her U.S. Open first round, she took out Maria Kirilenko in the third, battling injury and exhaustion to do so. She's dropped a few spots down the rankings since then, but with solid records on the singles court this year she and her contemporaries proved they're no one trick ponies.

Gutsiest Win

Tennis is one of those special sports in which a player's true mettle is tested. On the court wholly by yourself, without teammates or coaches, battling the elements and the fans along with your opponents, it often takes more than just talent to pull off a win. And this year that extra juice came from some surprising places.

The Runner-Up

Virginie Razzano has been around the Tour for well over a decade and has had modest success over the years, but injury and illness pushed her out of the top hundred in 2010, finishing the year at her lowest ranking since the turn of the century. She was dealt an even bigger blow the following spring, when her coach and fiancé passed away just days before the start of her hometown Slam. The Frenchwoman played Roland Garros without much luck and came to Paris this year with just two main draw wins on her record for the season. Ranked #111 at the time, her odds against Serena Williams -- riding a seventeen match, two-title win streak at the time -- in her French Open opener were dismal at best. But Razzano found a way to steel up her nerves -- down a set and 1-5 in the second, she somehow rallied to force a third. She took a stunning five-game lead in the decider too, and though she hiccuped a bit trying to close it out, the veteran wildcard ultimately held on for the unbelievable win, handing the great Serena her earliest ever exit at a Slam. Razzano's grit didn't hold out too much longer, though -- she lost in the next round to Arantxa Rus and only won two more Tour-level matches the rest of the year. But this win, her first in Paris since 2009, may have meant more than any other in her long career.

The Winner

There's not much that can beat Razzano's toughness in that match, but Alisa Kleybanova's return to the court in 2012 might just do it. The young Russian cracked the top twenty early last year after winning a pair of titles the previous season and making the quarters in Dubai. But then she shocked the world when, on her twenty-second birthday, she revealed she was suffering from Hodgkin's lymphoma and took a leave from the sport. She made a stunning return this past March, facing off against Johanna Larsson in Miami. It took three sets and a couple hours, but the Sony Ericsson wildcard notched a win that meant so much more than its simple scoreline. She, too, lost a round later to Maria Kirilenko and didn't play again the rest of the season, but storming back after nearly a year of treatment for a serious disease shows a type of courage above and beyond what we've come to expect on the court.

Best Non-Slam Final

Individual matches are one thing, but to string a couple together, day after day, and to walk away with a title is quite another. A couple ladies got the honor of claiming their first Tour trophies this year -- for some it may be the only one they ever get, for others it'll be the kick-off for what will surely be many more to come. Not everyone title set a milestone this year, though, but that doesn't mean one was any less important than another -- and some wins came in such strong style that they deserve special recognition.

The Runner-Up

The Citi Open in Washington, didn't attract the biggest names this year -- with most of the sport's elite distracted by the London Olympics, no one in the top twenty-five made it to the mid-Atlantic. That's not to say there was no talent in the field -- several rising American stars and a couple newcomers took the opportunity to get in a few match wins that week. Ultimately top-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, once a stone's throw from the top ten, made good on her position and reached her first final in over a year, albeit after a long fight with Vania King in the semis. In the other half of the draw, little-known Magdalena Rybarikova, winner of a couple small titles here and there, took out the next two seeds and made the championship match without dropping a set. The teeny Slovak had only won five Tour-level matches all year before D.C., but when you'd never have guessed that to see her play in that final. She smacked stunning returns, hit every line and dismantled the heavy favorite in their hot night match. And with her third career trophy, gave us a glimpse of what she can do -- now she'll just have to keep it up from one event to the next.

The Winner

The year started off with some fireworks too as the players tried to get in their opening salvos before the Australian Open. This field was stacked with half of the eight seeds having at least one Grand Slam crown to their name and all of them ranked in the top twenty. There were some casualties, though, with retirements from both Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams helping Daniela Hantuchova through to the finals, but the bottom half of this draw showed nothing but top-notch ball. Kaia Kanepi's biggest challenge came surprisingly in her first round against qualifier Alexandra Panova, but she one-sidedly defeated three top players in a row after that, handing a bagel to Pavlyuchenkova a round later and dropping just three games to Francesca Schiavone in the semis. Her similarly dominant victory over Hantuchova in the final put her on a path towards the top tiers of the sport -- she won another title in Estoril and climbed to #15 in the world back in August -- but unfortunately all sorts of injuries disrupted her play throughout the year. If she gets healthy and plays like she did to start the year, though, I wouldn't be surprised to see her make another play for the top ten.

Best Slam Final

But while every tournament win is important, let's face it -- what everyone is really going after is a Grand Slam title. And this year was full of championships so exciting you can't help but feel good about the future of women's tennis.

The Runner-Up

This year's U.S. Open was full of surprises, breakthroughs and goodbyes, but ultimately the two most successful players of the year made it to the final and, boy, did they put up a show. Serena Williams had won this title three times before, and had brought some big-time to Center Court over the years. Meanwhile Victoria Azarenka, the first new #1 to have captured a Major title in almost four years, was looking to back up that trophy in Melbourne and seal in her banner year. The two battled for more than two hours, the lead shifting back and forth and the outcome in question throughout. Though experience finally won out, handing Serena her fourth trophy in the Big Apple, the fact that we saw these ladies go at it so well for so long bodes well for the next generation.

The Winner

Serena was the winner in my pick for the best Major final of the year too, but her road to get there was not nearly as easy as we might have expected. Four times a winner at the All England Club before this year, she was the huge favorite despite her relatively mediocre sixth seed. Aggie Radwanska, on the other hand, may have been at a career-high ranking, but the then-#3 had never made it out of a quarterfinal at a Slam. This fortnight, though, she'd raised her game and managed to pull off some top-rate wins to make the final. She very easily could have buckled like those before her, and after dropping a 1-6 first set, it looked as if she would do just that. But the young Pole rebounded in a way her predecessors could not -- after trading breaks in the second, she was ultimately, unexpectedly able to force a decider. Of course, her surge only lasted so long, but watching even the most reserved players bringing their power game, could be a sign of a great, intellectual development in the sport.

Doubles Team of the Year

It's easy to be swept up by all the action on the singles circuit, but this year brought us some impressive action in doubles as well. With veteran teams taking a bit of a backseat in 2012, new blood took the opportunity to rise up and captured some of the biggest titles of the year.

The Runner-Up

Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka had their coming out party in 2011, but really turned up their game this season. After winning Roland Garros in 2011, the Czechs combined for four doubles titles this year and made the final at five other events -- two Grand Slams, the Olympics and the year-end championships among them. With big serves and slick movements they notched wins over some of the biggest stars in the sport and finished the year ranked #3 and #4 respectively in the discipline. They're not showing any signs of slowdown either -- they didn't need to play the final rubber during the Fed Cup championship, but the momentum driving their country's spirits should stay with them in the new season. And with some of the most infectiously happy reactions on Tour, I can't wait to see their next win.

The Winner

But while the Czechs parlayed their success into glory for their homeland, a pair of Italians broke through from seemingly out of nowhere to end the year at #1. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci had more than their fair share of success on their own this year, but the two best friends really thrived when they came together. They were seeded eleventh in Australia and made their way to the final and, after sweeping the clay court season, combined for a title at Roland Garros -- not insignificantly after Sara had also made the singles final. They exited "early" at Wimbledon -- in the quarters to the Czech powerhouses -- but rebounded to claim the crown in New York, just two days after Errani had been decimated in the singles semis. In total, the dancing duo won eight trophies and played in two more finals this year -- all while rising to their highest singles rankings. If they continue to play this well together, I expect they'll be adding to those totals by the boatload.

Player of the Year

All of these ladies put up some big results in 2012, but at the end of the day the WTA was dominated by just a handful of players this season. And a couple ladies in particular showed themselves to be the true forces in tennis -- putting together amazing win streaks, setting all kinds of records and proving they're never going to give up fighting. Some players rise to the top and flitter out, but something tells me these two are going to be fighting it out for some more time to come.

The Runner-Up

Victoria Azarenka had a coming out party in 2012. After years of thriving on Tour, she had yet to make a breakthrough at a Slam -- she had been handed some tough draws in the past, meeting Serena Williams in the third round at last year's U.S. Open and suffering heat exhaustion at a couple Majors before that. But she started this year with a bang, winning in Sydney and handing out four bagel sets on her way to the title in Melbourne. In total, she won twenty-six straight games to kick off the season, took the #1 ranking, captured six titles, brought home Olympic Bronze, and earned a record $7.9 million in prize money during the year. She notched wins over every top-ten player she faced this year except one -- so it shouldn't be a surprise who just narrowly beat her out for the last award of year.

The Winner

She may not have ended 2012 at the top of the rankings, but it's hard to argue anyone had more success this season than Serena Williams. After some strange results early in the season, she ultimately hit her stride. She brought a seventeen-match win streak into the French Open, and despite an even more shocking loss there, regrouped to put together a second half record of 31-1 which included two Major titles and Olympic Gold. Now back at #3 in the world, she looks healthy, motivated and focused on the sport in a way we haven't seen in a while, and when she's in this kind of state we know she's practically unstoppable. Still, with a couple of next-generation stars starting to give Serena a run for the money, winning might not come as easily for her in the future -- but as long as she's around to force others to play their best, it sure looks like there's a lot of good tennis left to be had.

Well there you have it, the best and worst of women's tennis in 2012. It might not all have been pretty, but it sure got pretty darn exciting this season. Hopefully those who succeeded will keep momentum on their side and those that stumbled a bit will regain their footing. But whatever happens next year, if the action comes even close to this, we'll be in for even more fun.

Check back soon for the men's Tennis Spin Awards -- if you thought the ladies made it exciting in 2012, you ain't seen nothing yet.

No comments: