December 19, 2012

The 2012 Tennis Spin Awards: The Men

If you thought the ladies got things heated up in 2012, the men may have broken the thermometer. Their season was filled with breakthroughs and breakdowns, too, of course, and a couple players sadly left the game entirely. But with some of the biggest stars in the sport raising their game against each other, everyone else was forced to step up their play if they were going to make any impact at all.

And when you put all of that together, we have some very deserving winners of this year's Tennis Spin Awards.

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

There was plenty of new blood on the men's Tour in 2012, too -- some slammed their way on the court, others fizzled out just as quickly. But a couple put together some headline grabbing wins over the season and did more than their part to make names for themselves on the circuit.

The Nominees

France's Benoit Paire first made waves in the ATP last year, winning his first two Challenger titles, beating Gilles Simon in Rotterdam and winning his first main draw match at a Major. He started this year just inside the top hundred and came out swinging -- a qualifier in Auckland, he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero and Juan Ignacio Chela to make the quarters and, a few months later, worked his way to the final in Belgrade. He started making progress at the Slams too, reaching the third round at Wimbledon and taking Philipp Kohlschreiber to five long sets in New York. He's still without that first Tour trophy, but now ranked #47 in the world and having earned a legion of fans along the way, he may have the support to climb even farther up the rankings.

Young David Goffin ended the year just slightly ahead of Paire, having pulled off some big upsets throughout the season. Just barely twenty-one at the start of the year, he was ranked #174 when he beat Xavier Malisse on his way to the quarters in Chennai and went on to win the first of his two Challenger titles a few months later in Guadeloupe. But his biggest coups came on the biggest stages -- a qualifier at Roland Garros, he survived two five set matches and even took a set off Roger Federer in the fourth round. He lost one round earlier at Wimbledon, but still, five best-of-five wins isn't bad for a man who'd never played the main draw of a Major before this year. He made the quarters in Winston-Salem too, and scored his last win of the year against John Isner in Valencia. The Belgian also won seven of eight matches that went to a decider this year, suggesting he might just have the stamina to keep fighting pushed to the limit. If he finds a way to harness that strength, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a move into the elite in 2013.

Martin Klizan certainly did what he could to get his name in the headlines this year. The twenty-three year old Slovak won a handful of Challenger events early in the season and then made his way to the semis in Kitzbühel. But he really broke through at the U.S. Open where he stunned Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second round and made his way to the sweet sixteen. Later that month he won the first Tour final he ever played in St. Petersburg, having survived a nearly four-hour slugfest against top seed Mikhail Youzhny a round earlier. He only won one more match the rest of the season, but at his career-high ranking now of #30, big things will be expected from him in the year to come.

The Winner

Jerzy Janowicz may not have won a title this season, but his jump from #221 in the world to #26 now is nothing short of breath-taking. He spent the early months of the season on the Challenger and Futures circuit, but snuck his way to the third round at the All England Club and only lost to Florian Mayer after a three hour-plus five setter. Still, he didn't break into double digits for another few weeks and didn't play another Tour-level match until October in Moscow. But when he started winning, he didn't seem to want to stop -- after qualifying for the season-ending event in Paris, the then twenty-one year old Pole was dealt a massively tough draw, but he nevertheless summarily dismissed five top-twenty players in a row, including Marin Cilic, Janko Tipsarevic and red-hot Andy Murray. He eventually lost in the final to David Ferrer, but with that string of wins and ninety aces during the tournament, it won't be long before he's bringing home some big prizes.

Most Improved

All these guys bounded on the scene in 2012, but a couple who'd been around for ages really brought their A-game to the court this year. Some had been near the top before and just had their breakthrough, others somehow found a way to make some big strides after years of putting up middling results. And if they keep it up, any one of them could really heat things up in the new season.

The Nominees

Philipp Kohlschreiber had been in or around the top thirty for years and had even picked up a couple titles along the way. But he really kicked off this season with a bang -- he made the fourth round of three of his first four events, beating Richard Gasquet, Juan Monaco and Nicolas Almagro in the process. He upped his game on the grass court too -- after taking out Rafael Nadal in Halle, the twenty-eight year old German made his way to the quarterfinal at Wimbledon, his best ever performance at a Slam. He picked up another crown and a runner-up trophy to boot and reached a high #16 ranking in July. He's dropped a few spots since then, but after putting together his most successful season more than a decade-plus into his career there's no reason to believe there aren't bigger things coming for him.

Andreas Seppi was another one of those also-rans before this season began. Consistently ranked in the mid-double digits, he'd only just picked up his first title last year in Eastbourne. It took a while for him to hit his stride in 2012 -- he was 9-13 through April and only scored one win over a top-thirty player. But when spring came around he seemed to find his footing -- he scored himself a trophy in Belgrade and beat both Stanislas Wawrinka and John Isner in Rome. But his real breakthrough came at Roland Garros when, after surviving two five-set matches which together lasted more than six and a half hours, he managed to put together a two-set lead over world #1 Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. He did eventually lose that battle, but rebounded nicely to make another two finals before closing out the season with a win in Moscow. Now at #23 the veteran is in a solid position to break top-twenty, and might just be able to prove this is not just a sport for the youth.

The Winner

While both of these guys made big leaps in their game throughout the year, perhaps the most impressive jump came from veteran Argentine Juan Monaco, who'd reached his previous high more than four years ago. He'd struggled a bit in the interim, falling out of the top fifty and losing seven straight finals since 2007. But he pulled things together this year, finally breaking his title drought with a win in Viña del Mar and stunning Mardy Fish, Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick on his way to the Indian Wells semis. After taking a title in Hamburg he very quietly snuck his way into the top ten -- not bad for a man who'd been pro for a full decade already. He may have failed to get his country into the Davis Cup final, but with one more win in Kuala Lumpur at the end of his season -- his first off clay -- he more than doubled his trophy count in 2012 and gains the highest year-end ranking of his career. With his results spanning surfaces, he might just prove to be a real threat for all the top players in the new year.

One to Watch

Some players put up big results in 2012, others just showed us glimpses of what they might one day be capable of. And if either of these guys is able to pull their game together in the coming twelve months, they might just find themselves winning a different award next year.

The Runner-Up

The world has been watching Grigor Dimitrov for a couple years, but he really only started to make a dent in the game this season. A Junior champion at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2008, the twenty-one year old Bulgarian first cracked the top hundred early last year and kicked off his season at #76. He was a little slow to start, but eventually pulled himself together and made the fourth round in Miami, beating Tomas Berdych to do it. A couple months later he managed upsets over Gilles Muller and Kevin Anderson to make the semis at Queen's Club and climbed his way to a career-high #48 to end the year. He still hasn't made a big dent at the Majors -- he only won one match at each of the first three Slams this year -- but having notched his first top-ten victory as a pro, he could be gathering the momentum to change that soon.

The Winner

Grega Zemlja has been a bit further under the radar during his career, but he made a nice move to raise his profile in 2012. He had to qualify for most of the ATP level events he played and didn't always make it through to the main draws, but he did eke out a handful of Challenger titles and took a set off Fernando Verdasco in the Wimbledon second round. The Slovenian hit his stride a few months later, though -- after battling through the qualifying rounds in New York, he snuck through to the third round of the U.S. Open, eventually losing in straight sets to Janko Tipsarevic. He got revenge quickly though -- again a qualifier in Vienna, this time he came back from a set down against the Serb in the semis and made the first Tour final of his career. With wins over Xavier Malisse and Tommy Haas already that week, his achievement certainly made people take notice, and now ranked a stone's throw from the top fifty, he might be poised to really break through. If he can pull off a couple more wins like this in 2013, there's no telling how much higher he can go.

Best Comeback

Everybody loves a great comeback story, and this year the men's Tour was full of them. Some came after injury stalled a burgeoning career, others at a time when we might have written off their actors entirely, and one very special one came from a man who not only overcame multiple surgeries, but parlayed his rise to heights he'd never seen before.

The Nominees

Tommy Haas had been as high as #2 in the world nearly a decade back, but over the years he fell and rose, fell and rose, dropping into triple digits -- quadruple digits -- for some time before eventually bouncing back. Still, when he began this year at #205, fresh off of hip surgery, thirty-three years of age, and titleless for two-and-a-half years, you had to think he had little juice left in him. But the gorgeous German -- and new father -- showed he was not ready for retirement quite yet when he made the semis in Munich, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the way, and reached the third round in Paris as a qualifier. A week later he stunned Roger Federer in the Halle final, his first win over the soon-to-be #1 in over ten years. Haas didn't stop there -- he made back-to-back finals over the summer and reached the quarters at both the Toronto and Shanghai Masters. In total he notched four wins over top ten players and ends the year at #21 in the world, and having shown he has no intention of going anywhere just yet, there's no reason he won't climb higher still.

Unlike Haas Sam Querrey was only just beginning to make strides in the sport when shoulder injury took him out of the game in the middle of last year. After dropping points from his successful 2010 season, he saw his ranking fall from #17 in the world to triple digits by last September. It took a while for him to gain any traction this year too -- he won just one match in his first five events of the year -- but he started to get his groove back in the spring. After taking a Challenger title in Sarasota, the young American made the semis at Queen's Club, shot down big-serving Milos Raonic -- and almost did the same to Marin Cilic -- at Wimbledon and went on to capture his third crown in LA. His biggest feat, though, came at the very end of the season -- back in the top twenty-five by the time he reached Paris, he somehow came back from losing a bagel set to Novak Djokovic to notch his first top-ten victory of the season. Still a shade off his career high ranking -- and still, sadly, without any title bigger than a 250-level -- he has plenty of room to improve further, and as long as he stays healthy I'd expect him to get right to that task when the season starts in a few weeks.

The Winner

While both of these guys spent 2012 putting themselves back on the radar, one man -- a full six years after playing his last Tour-level match -- stormed back on court like he never had before. Brian Baker turned pro in 2003, but spent most of his time on the Futures and Challengers circuit. He did manage one match win at a Slam, beating one-time Roland Garros champion Gaston Gaudio in the first round of the 2005 U.S. Open, but never really broke through. His high rank during the first part of his career was an ultra-low #173, and a series of surgeries -- including a rare-for-tennis Tommy John procedure in 2008 -- kept him from making a dent in his early twenties. Now twenty-seven, he spent the first few months of the year qualifying for the lower-tier events. But then he went to France -- straight off a win in Savannah, Baker made his first main draw of a Tour event in seven year...and beat Nikolay Davydenko and Gael Monfils on his way to the final. It didn't stop there -- he defeated Xavier Malisse in Paris, incidentally the man who'd defeated him in New York in '05, made the fourth round at Wimbledon and in July finally broke into the top hundred. He didn't win much during the hardcourt season, but with his comeback taking him to unprecedented heights, I don't think we've seen the last of him quite yet.

Least Follow-Through

For each of those who raised their profile during the year, there was one (or two) who took a bit of a tumble. Some were big, some barely noticeably, but with the high expectations they'd set for themselves -- and all the news they made -- it's a little disappointing they didn't have a better year.

The Nominees

Carlos Berlocq came into the year on a roll -- the veteran Argentine may have been nearly triple-bagelled at last year's U.S. Open, but he ended 2011 winning three Challenger events in a row. He began this season strong, too, reaching the final at Viña del Mar and making the quarters at three events during the Golden Swing, twice beating top-fifteen player Gilles Simon in the process. He rose to a career high just inside the top forty in time for the French Open where, given his recent performance on clay, he could have been a contender. Unfortunately he lost in the first round in Paris -- in fact, he lost in the first round of thirteen tournaments through the end of the year. Yes, he was playing a higher level of opponent than he had in years past, but unable to make any dent against the top players in the back half, he hasn't yet proven he belongs among them.

Bernard Tomic had been just on the verge of breaking into the elite when the year started. He'd won both the Australian and U.S. Opens as a Junior, but really made a push last season when, as a qualifier, he beat Nikolay Davydenko and Robin Soderling and took a set off Novak Djokovic through the Wimbledon quarterfinals to finally break into double-digit rankings. He seemed to keep that momentum up in 2012 too, reaching the semis in Brisbane and the fourth round in Melbourne, and by June he was squarely in the top thirty. Unfortunately for the volatile Australian, that's as far as he'd go this year -- he lost his opener at the All England Club, one of seven straight losses he notched over the summer, and against a retiring Andy Roddick in the second round of the U.S. Open he drew wide criticism for his largely disengaged performance. He ended the year with three more first-round losses and outside the top fifty again, but if he can get his game together during the off season, he might just be able to do some damage again in his homeland.

The Winner

Unlike these guys who only peaked this year, Fabio Fognini actually hit his high watermark in 2011 on the heels of a semifinal showing in Santiago and a quarterfinal at Roland Garros. Often strongest during the clay court season, he put up some nice numbers this year too, making his first career final in Bucharest and getting back to the third round of the French Open. But he kept going after that -- 4-7 on grass before this year, he made the quarters in Eastbourne and put together some nice wins on the hard courts. But he really raised his profile in New York when he could have delivered the final blow to homegrown hero Andy Roddick. He did manage to take a set off his American friend, and even parlayed his strength in to another final in Metz. But he went radio silent after that, losing six matches in a row, even if he ends the season with his highest year-end ranking. At twenty-five the spunky Italian still has plenty of time left to make a move, but it would've been nice to see it come after he'd won so many fans this fall.

Greatest Letdown

Some players certainly lost momentum during the year, but a couple disappointed on a much more broad scale in 2012. And it wasn't always on the court.

The Nominees

Janko Tipsarevic finished the season at #9 in the world for the second straight year, but he wasn't nearly as impressive as he was in 2011. Coming off of two titles last fall, he kicked off this year with a final run in Chennai and made the quarters in Dubai and Miami. He even notched a win over world #1 Novak Djokovic in Madrid before winning a title again in Stuttgart. Still, it was one of only two wins against top-ten players he scored this year -- not the kind of results you want to have when you're supposed to be one of the elite. And Tipsy actually saved his most disappointing behavior for off the courts when, back in September, he sparked Twitter outrage after posting a few controversial comments regarding women's pay. He seemed to lose a legion of fans after that and, unlike during his runs at the U.S. Open in previous years, crowds were clearly rooting against him in all subsequent matches. When he displayed more than a little histrionics during his quarterfinal drop-from-in-front loss to Jerzy Janowicz in the Paris quarters, it was kind of karmic. He only won one set in the London championships, too -- injured or not, his attitude throughout the year attracted the wrong kind of headlines, and they may have been reflected in some less-than-stellar results when it really mattered.

Ryan Harrison's on-court results were also overshadowed in 2012 by his behavior. Coming off a more-than-solid season, he had a couple of nice wins during the season, reaching the semis in Eastbourne and Newport, and reached a career high ranking near the top forty in the middle of the summer. But, despite taking a set here and there off the top ten, he's still 0-15 against the elite. And the often-volatile American was best-known this year for his outburst -- and the awkward post-match "apology" -- at the Olympics this year. With just two wins since mid-July, he ends the year back in the sixties and without the momentum of last year's strong season. He's certainly shown signs he has the game that could make an impact, but unless he regroups before hitting the court again -- with his feet, this time, not his racquet -- it might take some time before we see it.

Alex Bogomolov's fall in 2012 is particularly upsetting given his rise back up the rankings last year. Besides stunning Andy Murray in Miami and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Cincinnati, he made the third round at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. After a semifinal appearance in St. Petersburg the then-twenty-eight year old rose to a career high ranking at #33 and seemed poised to make a late-stage push for a title. But he started dropping points almost immediately this season -- he won just one match at a Major all year, and only notched four victories over top fifty players. He didn't do much better at the Challenger level either -- a winner of eight second-tier titles before, he barely broke even in 2012, going 6-4 at these events. He dropped back into the triple digits in late October and ends the year nearly a hundred spots below where he started it. And this late in his career you have to wonder if he has any more comebacks left in him.

The Winner

Disappointment took on a whole new mien in Donald Young this year. After stellar performances last year in DC and the U.S. Open, he reached the final in Bangkok and earned a career high ranking at #38 by February. Then, after making the second round in Memphis, he put together a rarely-seen string of seventeen straight losses. He finally managed a win in Winston-Salem, but the "luck" didn't last long -- he finished the year 5-24, even resorting to a Challenger even at the end of the season. He lost that match too, falling in three sets to world #286 Michael Lammer in Charlottesville. He might have had some justification last year for his expletive-filled rant against the USTA -- and the USTA has given itself plenty of reasons to be criticized recently -- but his performance in 2012 suggests maybe he doesn't have much to back up his big talk. And near a two hundred himself ranking now, it's going to be difficult for him to prove otherwise.

Biggest Surprise

Upsets abound on a tennis court, of course -- it would be the second most boring sport in the world without them -- and this year was no exception. And while a couple players tried to use a big win to springboard into a new level, one proved he still has his best game, even if we won't be able to see it any more.

The Nominees

Lukas Rosol wasn't exactly a household name in the early part of the year. The unrecognizable veteran had actually hit a career high ranking in the mid-sixties last year, just after winning his fifth Challenger event in Braunschweig, but he was still a virtual unknown in 2012. He scored a win or two in the spring, making the third round in Miami and beating veteran Marcos Baghdatis at Queen's Club. But nothing compares to the feat he pulled off at the All England Club a few weeks later -- ranked #100 in the world in his first Wimbledon main draw, he'd just eked out a win against fastly fading Ivan Dodig to score only his fourth Major match victory. He was a heavy underdog against two-time champion Rafael Nadal in the second round, but after a hard-fought tiebreak for the first set it looked like he was in better shape. Rosol took a two-set-to-one lead over the former #1 and, after more than two hours of play, Rafa was shockingly dealt his earliest loss at a Slam since 2005. It was, of course, Rafa's last match of the season, and Rosol didn't manage another win so big the rest of the year. But by pulling off the biggest upset of 2012, by far, the Czech might have earned himself a place in the history books.

Rafa's loss at Wimbledon was clearly unexpected, but one that came a few weeks earlier might have been more so. The undisputed King of Clay had won a full ninety-two percent of his matches on the surface throughout his career, and every time he loses on dirt it becomes the shock of the season. He'd put himself back on track in 2012, finally ending a recent streak of losses to his new nemesis, and had already won two titles during the stretch this year. But on the strange blue clay of Madrid he would endure his second big surprise of the year. In the second round against compatriot Fernando Verdasco -- a man he'd just trampled in Monte Carlo -- he found himself in an early deficit and wasn't able to pull out of the hole. After thirteen unsuccessful attempts, including one amazing marathon in Melbourne, the less-decorated Spaniard, ranked just inside the top twenty at the time, scored his first top-ten victory in almost a year and handed Rafa his only clay-court loss of the season.

The Winner

As surprising as Nadal's losses were this year, it's probably more appropriate to dwell on the happier moments of the season for this award. And perhaps the most stunning success came from Andy Roddick who somehow, after announcing his retirement at the U.S. Open, found a way to play better tennis than he had in years. Having already won two titles this year -- making it twelve straight seasons with at least one trophy on the shelf -- he dominated Bernard Tomic in the New York second round, raised his game against Fabio Fognini a match later, and even put up a fight in a rain-delayed round of sixteen against Juan Martin Del Potro. While that was his final professional match, though, Roddick wasn't ready to leave the court right away -- last month he beat big-serving Milos Raonic in a Toronto exhibition and then ended third-ranked Andy Murray at the Miami Tennis Cup exo at the start of December. Non-Tour events don't carry the same cache, of course, but to see the once top-ranked American playing with the same fight that endeared him to so many fans over the years sure makes us miss him even more.

Gutsiest Win

It can be argued that Andy Roddick's run after retirement took a lot of guts, but there might have been some other performances in 2012 that showed just how much mental strength these athletes have. Some translated into bigger and better things in the months that followed, others resulted in a bit of a flame out. But whatever the case, you have to respect the performance these guys gave.

The Runner-Up

It's long been discussed what would become of American tennis when the "old guard" of Andy Roddick and once high-flying James Blake started to struggle. The next generation had a lot of hopes thrust on them and showed glimpses of what they can do, but for a variety of reasons never really made a sustained run in the top. But this year the U.S. made its first appearance in the Davis Cup semis since 2008, thanks in part to John Isner's fearless showing in the early ties. Coming off two long five setters at the Australian Open and with a mediocre 3-3 record in Davis Cup before this year, he was the clear underdog against a strong Swiss team -- who incidentally had homecourt advantage -- in the first round back in February. And with an opening rubber against a resurgent Roger Federer on clay -- the only surface on which he has a losing record -- odds were not stacked in his favor. But Isner wasn't affected by history, the crowd or the dirt -- he dropped the first set in Fribourg, but quickly rebounded, stunning the record-holder in a best-of-five battle, one of six top-ten wins he scored this year. The American had a less stellar end to the season, losing to three sub-forty players in a row, but with a couple titles, his first Masters 1000 final and a rise into the top ten himself, he might just have a run to the elite still left in him.

The Winner

While Isner's performance for his country was certainly admirable, you can't discount what Juan Martin Del Potro did for his. Once the #4 player in the world, his rise to the top was staunchly halted after a wrist injury took him out of the game for most of 2010. He made a couple valiant attempts to get back in the mix, but it wasn't until 2012 that we saw what the man could really do. After a handful of tough losses to Roger Federer this year, he finally started to raise his game in the spring. He took a two-set-to-love lead in the French Open quarters before losing, and then pushed Fed to the very limit in the Olympic semis -- in a nearly three-hour, thirty-six game third set, the tall Argentine came back from breaks down several times, ultimately succumbing in one of the best matches of the week. Given his tendency to exhaustion and the physical struggles he's continued to have, I wasn't expecting much out of him in the Bronze medal round. But after a tight two sets against year-end #1 Novak Djokovic, DelPo fought off all six break chances against him and clinched the most unlikely Olympic glory for himself and his South American nation. That set a fire under off the year-end #7 -- Del Potro went on to shock Roger in the Basel final and again in his last London round robin. He might be a ways from that next Grand Slam title, but by bringing his best when the pressure was on tells me it won't be long before he gets it.

Best Non-Slam Final

Some players may focus all their attention on the Majors, but there's just as much at stake during the rest of the season. And while most of the smaller-level champions will never have what it takes to survive match after match of best-of-five action, a couple big-time winners pulled off victories this year that might have really turned things around for them.

The Runner-Up

King of Clay Rafael Nadal had been going through a bit of a slump recently. He might have been ranked #2 in the world when the year started, but he'd developed a new nemesis over the last twelve months. In 2011 red hot Novak Djokovic had put together six straight wins over the Spaniard, all in finals. But none were more shocking than the two blows he dealt at the clay Masters events. To add insult to injury Nole even rebounded after a grueling win in the Australian Open semis this year to hand Rafa one more defeat to kick off 2012. But Nadal is a champion of the highest order, and when the two met on a turf that's been all Rafa since 2004, he took charge. In the Monte Carlo final the former #1 was ruthless, out-acing his rival, winning all but four of his first serves and wrapping up the match in a tidy seventy-nine minutes. Nadal got two more wins over the Djoker before ending his season early, one importantly in the Roland Garros championship, and though he didn't have time to improve on that score further, he nevertheless turned momentum back in his favor and got one hell of a monkey off his back.

The Winner

Juan Martin Del Potro similarly ended a long losing streak this year. Fresh off the boldest win of the year, he put together his third Major quarterfinal run of the year and won a title to boot in Vienna. But until he came to Basel he'd been winless against Roger Federer since 2009. He advanced to the final without too much drama, though lost a set in the middle of the week to Kevin Anderson, who actually fired off twenty aces to the Argentine's two. Fed had been tested too, dropping a tiebreak to Thomaz Bellucci in the second round, but he'd raised his game later in the week to make the final for the ninth time in his career. But DelPo wasn't intimidated by the hometown hero -- even though he was out-aced by the Swiss legend, he scored the only break conversion of the nearly three hour match. And with a dominating performance in the third-set breaker, he finally showed his 2009 performance was no joke. To end his season with four titles -- the most prolific year he's posted since 2008 -- the tall Argentine seems to be squarely back in the game and should really cause some damage in the months ahead.

Best Slam Final

Winning any title on Tour is a big feat, but let's face it -- especially when it comes down to best-of-five matches -- the Majors are what everyone is really after. And this year's winners put up quite a show from start to finish.

The Runner-Up

The U.S. Open final was one of the strangest matches of the year, rife with momentum shifts, breakthrough performances, and maybe a source of a little agita for the CBS censors. For all the unexpected drama, the come-from-behind rallies, and the eventual triumph, this year's championship was really about the redemption of Andy Murray. Long lumped in with the other Grand Slam titleists of his generation, he had one very noticeable prize missing from his trophy case. But he seemed to have found a new motivation this year in New York, where he'd been runner-up four years ago -- incidentally, the first of his four previous Major finals. He was the on-paper underdog against defending champion Novak Djokovic, but he came on court with the confidence of a veteran. Having finally broken the seal -- after nearly five hours of play -- the pressure will be on him to add to that tally. And now that he's proven he can, he'd better deliver.

The Winner

We might have known just how good this year's Grand Slam season would be when we saw went down right as the year began. Defending champion Novak Djokovic had sailed through early rounds, winning eight of his first nine sets by at least a 6-2 margin. But he hit a bit of a stumbling block against Andy Murray in the semis -- the two-time finalist took a two-set-to-one lead and pushed him for nearly five hours before finally allowing the Serb into the final. Meanwhile Rafael Nadal, again contending with injury at the start of the year, was similarly strong during the first week, but seemed to raise his game even more later in the fortnight. He survived a battle against Tomas Berdych in the quarters and was surprisingly unrelenting against Roger Federer a round later. By making his first Melbourne championship since he won in 2009, he'd set up the third straight-- and maybe most unlikely -- Major final against his new rival. And what a fight the two men put up on championship Sunday -- after nearly six hours of play, more than a handful of momentum shifts and five high-quality, high-intensity sets, Nole was eventually crowned again. The match set a slew of records itself, but maybe more importantly underscored some of the biggest talents in the sport. Rafa and Nole would play one more Slam this year before injury would put an early end to the season of half of that pair. But once their both back in top form, hopefully we can expect more fireworks from all of their future meetings. And it sure looks like there can and should be many more of them.

Doubles Team of the Year

As always, it's easy to overlook the paired players in this sport, but that doesn't mean their accomplishments are any less notable. And while the veteran team of Mike and Bob Bryan finished as the #1 couple for the seventh year in their much-decorated careers, it was some more surprising duos that earned my awards this year.

The Runner-Up

Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez only started playing together regularly this season, but boy did they capitalize on their teamwork. Together in 2012 they were able to nearly double their trophy count, winning four titles, and they made just as many more finals. But their big coup came at the end of the season when, as the sixth seeds in the ATP Tour Finals in London, they stunned the Bryan Brothers and clinched a semifinal spot with a win over Jean-Julien Rojer and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi. They were on point to against Wimbledon champions Jonathan Marray and Frederik Nielsen. When they met the recently-appointed Indian team of Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna in the final, they outlasted the Paris and Dubai champs to capture what's easily the biggest title of their careers. The Spaniards' surprise run might have been enough for them to win this award too, had they been able to make good on their momentum during the Davis Cup finals. But if they can make a similar splash in the new year, there's no telling where they can go from here.

The Winner

Instead, half of the team that wins my award this year was instrumental in that Davis Cup tie. But Radek Stepanek had even bigger success with his new doubles partner Leander Paes in 2012. In just their second tournament, the Czech/Indian pair took out three veteran champions in Melbourne to win their first Major together -- and Stepanek's only one so far. They took two more Masters titles this season and made the final at the U.S. Open, putting them just a skoch behind the record-holding Bryans. They went a perfect 3-0 during the London round robins, but were ultimately halted in the semis by Paes's former long-time partner and countrymen. Still for two men who barely knew each other when the season started, you can't argue that they didn't pull off one of the biggest leaps within their sport.

Player of the Year

There were plenty of candidates for this award in 2012. For the first time since 2003, four different men won Grand Slam titles, and while various players seemed to dominate various parts of the season, no one had quite the run we saw last year. But while many might have made an impact, or a comeback, or a breakthrough, only a couple were truly worthy of this recognition.

The Runner-Up

Novak Djokovic, somewhat quietly, ends his second straight year as the #1 player in the world, though he does so after a much quieter 2012 season. He only won six titles this year, compared to a full ten in 2011, and only one was a Major -- he won three last year. But he did make two more Slam finals, his first at the French, and reclaim the year-end championship with a title in London. He lost just twelve matches this year, only two of them were to players outside the top ten, and he won all but one of the five five-setters he contended -- not bad for a man who just two years ago was widely criticized for his poor stamina in the long matches. He improved his stats in 2012 in almost all categories, becoming one of the most dangerous returners on Tour and serving a shocking, for him, five hundred-plus aces on the year. As he returns to the site of his first and most recent Major, he has momentum on his side and a more-than-solid game on his racquet. And at just twenty-five years of age there's no reason he won't be spending another couple years on top.

The Winner

Roger Federer may end the year a few steps behind Novak in the rankings, but that doesn't make his record-setting anything less than awe-inspiring. Coming off one of the most productive ends to 2011, the thirty-one year old won three straight titles during the spring and finally, finally, ended a two-year streak during which no Major trophies were added to his mantle. His win in Wimbledon also brought him something many didn't believe he was capable of doing again -- reclaiming the #1 ranking which he had ceded all the way back in May 2010. He may have failed to complete the Golden Slam, leaving him one achievement short of Rafael Nadal, but with six titles himself this year and another four finals, he's shown that, even at his advanced age, he has no plans to go anywhere just yet. And while he's still around, don't expect him to cede his place at the top to anyone without a fight.

Well there you have it, one very exciting year in men's tennis is wrapped up. It wasn't a success for everyone, of course, but as everyone looks ahead to the quickly-approaching 2013 season there's clearly plenty of opportunity for everyone to make a much different impression in the new year. And whether momentum stays with the sport's elite or shifts to someplace entirely unexpected we can only hope the action next season is just as good as it was in this one.

No comments: