Supreme in women's pro tennis 2012 were three superstars -- Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka. The three finished atop the official standings for the full year's play and together captured all four of the year's Slams.
It was hardly clear at the year's outset that these three would be the dominators. One year ago, at the end of 2011, two other women stood atop the year's point standings. Caroline Wozniacki ranked first for the second straight year, excelling in rock-solid consistency and a strong match temperament. Second was Petra Kvitova, a lefty power player whose runs of greatness sometimes turned to spells of dismal error-making. Both were in their early 20's, and it seemed that both would stay at or near the top for many years. But 2012 would be unkind to both young superstars. Caroline tried to answer heavier-hitting opponents by raising her own power, but the change seemed uncomfortable for her, and she lost matches to players she previously outclassed. Meanwhile Petra's unpredictable descents into inconsistency became yet more frequent.
Surpassing Wozniacki and Kvitova in 2012 were the three superstars mentioned here at the outset. All three -- Serena, Sharapova, and Azarenka -- were heavy strikers, physically strong and able to rally and attack forcefully. Sharapova and Azarenka had finished 2011 ranked third and fourth just behind Wozniacki and Kvitova, and Serena, already a 13-time Slam champion, was recovering from over a year of sickness and injury.
In 2012 the three would in succession occupy the throne as the immediate if unofficial La Prima -- the player whose level of play at the moment was recognizably the strongest, regardless of official ranking. The first would be Azarenka, who by winning in Australia unseated Kvitova as our La Prima. The crown would then pass to Sharapova during the spring, and after Wimbledon it would belong to Serena Williams.
Among the early favorites for Australian Open 2012 were veteran megastars Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters. Serena was a five-time past champion at Melbourne, and Kim was the tournament's defending champion. But Serena would lose early, unable to find her best -- defeated by the extreme heat, a damaged ankle, and the quickness and power of her opponent, Makarova. Clijsters, however, reached the semis and then split the first two sets with Azarenka. The gallery firmly supported Kim, but it was Victoria who became stronger at the finish, aided by her own first-serving prowess, not seen earlier.
Victoria's final-round opponent in Melbourne would be Maria Sharapova, who had beaten Petra Kvitova in a three-set semi-final. Petra's performance in that affair had been up-and-down, ending in a dismal final game with Petra serving. But then in the final round, Maria vanished quickly against Azarenka. Maria tried to blast away to the sides and corners, but Victoria answered well, both in defending and countering. Following her impressive victory, it seemed that Vika, 22, was surely headed for more glory.
Victoria's zenith came in March, at Indian Wells, where Victoria won her fourth tournament of the year without defeat. Once again, she downed Sharapova in the final round, almost as conclusively as at Melbourne, again turning back Maria's rocketry while attacking any soft offering by her opponent with power and accuracy.
Azarenka's run ended at Miami after 26 straight match wins. Victoria, seemingly worn by the demands of the recent months, lost in the quarters to Marion Bartoli. Also defeated prior to the semis were three former Miami champions -- Kim Clijsters, off form and seemingly hurt, Serena Williams, beaten by a surprisingly aggressive Wozniacki, and Venus Williams, who tired against the controlled striker and excellent mover Agnieska Radwanska, 23. Agnieszka captured the Miami crown by defending well against Sharapova's relentless force, prevailing in two sets when Maria lapsed into errors.
Here then was the rank order in points earned in the first trimester of the tennis year:
1. Victoria Azarenka
2. Maria Sharapova
3. Agnieszka Radwanska
4. Marion Bartoli
The Second Trimester included Garros, Wimbledon, and their preliminaries. Azarenka collected no further triumphs, but she generally reached at least the middle rounds. In the clay-court action preceding Garros, Serena won Madrid and Charleston, Sharapova won Rome and Munich. Meanwhile Radwanska won at Brussels, and Sara Errani, who was previously ranked well below the others, won at Barcelona and Budapest.
The initial favorite at Garros was Serena Williams. But Serena lost in the first round to Virginie Razzano, 29, after coming within two points of winning. It was probably the biggest upset of the women's tennis year. The ranking points that Serena forfeited by not reaching the late rounds at Garros helped explain her failure to be #1 at year's end.
The new Garros champion would be Sharapova, despite the general belief that Maria's game was least suited to clay. Throughout the tournament, Maria's powerful serving and stroking penetrated the slowish conditions well, even as the clay-court bounces minimized the limitations in her own improved court movement. Maria's final-round opponent was smallish Sara Errani, who had defeated Sam Stosur by superb defense and countering in the critical stretches. But Maria's scorching play proved too much for Sara. Maria's newest triumph completed her career Grand Slam. She also regained the world #1 official ranking and simultaneously replaced Azarenka as our unofficial La Prima.
Serena Williams then won Wimbledon 2012 and did so impressively, though it did not seem that Serena was at her best. In the semis she was outplayed by Azarenka much of the way, and in the final Radwanska managed to capture one of the sets after Serena faded temporarily following a rain delay. Against both Victoria and Aznieszka, Serena's stronger serving and her greater willingness to move to net behind attacking shots made the difference.
Thus the leading point-gatherer during Second Trimester was Serena Williams, slightly ahead of Garros-winner Sharapova. (Both had scored well in the clay run-ins.) Meanwhile two newcomers from far back -- Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani -- moved upward. Sara was the runner-up at Garros, and Angelique reached the quarters at Garros and semis at Wimbledon.
But for 2012 to date, counting results in both first and second trimesters, a Big Four had now become recognizable.
1. Victoria Azarenka
2. Maria Sharapova
3. Agnieszka Radwanska
4. Serena Williams
Third Trimester through U.S. Open
Serena won the midsummer Olympics on Wimbledon grass without losing a set. Sharapova was second, Azarenka third. Serena then skipped Montreal and lost early in Cincinnati. (Petra Kvitova and Li Na won those two events.) But at U.S. Open, Serena raced through her first six matches, defeating her opponents by brute force in serving and striking, along with excellent quickness and speed afoot.
That pattern continued in the early going of the final round as Serena outplayed her opponent, Azarenka, making few errors and dominating in most exchanges.
But in the second set Victoria began ripping back Serena's best thrusts, and errors by Serena began to accumulate. Victoria won that second set and moved ahead 5 games to 3 in the third, seemingly in command of her destiny. But the last four games of the match all went to Serena, who was playing still-firm but now mistake-free tennis. The critical turning point came in a brief spell of costly errors in game ten by Vika, serving for the match. It was Serena's fourth U.S. Open singles crown, and though she was still behind Azarenka and Sharapova in the official rankings, Serena was now assuredly the sport's La Prima.
Serena did not participate in the Asian swing in October, which included high-reward tournaments in Tokyo and Beijing. The winner in Tokyo came as a surprise, when Nadia Petrova rediscovered her top form of past years. Then at Beijing Azarenka and Sharapova faced each other in the final match, both having advanced without losing a set. Vika defeated Maria in straight sets, her fourth win in their five meetings of 2012 to date.
A footnote came with the autumn triumphs by the former #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who won the tournaments in Seoul and Moscow. Against Sam Stosur in the final match at Moscow, in some stretches it was the Old Caroline, patiently accepting and often outlasting her opponent's domination. But there was also the New, consisting of more-severe rallying by Caroline plus more-than-occasional aggressive hitting, sometimes even moving firmly into forecourt. As always, Caroline's backhand remained her strongest weapon throughout, her serve the weakest.
The world's eight top-ranked women gathered in Istanbul for the WTA tour finale, 23-28 October, before large galleries. The four days of round-robin play reduced the field to four amid much thrilling action.
Serena Williams, fresh and strong, won all three of her red-group matches without loss of a set, outserving, outstroking, and moving better than every opponent. Meanwhile undefeated in the white group was Maria Sharapova, whose relentless power and aggressiveness in serving and striking proved effective on the indoor slowish, hard courts. Serena and Maria thus advanced to the tournament semis on Saturday. Meanwhile, second place in both groups was decided in direct head-to-head action on Friday.
Both Li Na and Victoria Azarenka had lost to Serena in the red group. Now, Li Na's severity in rallying was clearly stronger than Vika's, but Na's too-frequent errors, many of them narrowly missing, spelled a lost tiebreaker game in the first set and an early slipping behind in the second. Thus Azarenka earned the right to play Serena in the Saturday semis. Azarenka d. Li 76 63.
In the white-group Agnieszka Radwanska and Sara Errani, the slight but strong Italian star, had both lost to Sharapova earlier in the week, Agnieszka in a close three-setter, Sara in two. But now it was Sara who moved ahead, showing excellent mobility and determination along with occasional offense, winning the first set and breaking serve early in the second. The attractive action brought frequent drop shots and net sorties as the scoreboard shifted back and forth. But Agnieszka, who appeared to be the fresher, turned matters and then moved ahead early in the third set. A. Radwanska d. Errani 76 75 64.
Thus the order of finish in both round-robin groups was clear-cut without resort to sets-won or games-won tiebreaking rules. The case for changing to a double-elimination format, offered here in the past, thus gained no impetus.
The first semi-final on Saturday quickly became target practice for Serena Williams. After the first few games, the American's powerful serving, serve-returning, and stroking entirely dominated an Agnieszka apparently worn from her ordeal with Errani the previous evening. S. Williams d. A. Radwanska 62 61.
The second semi matched Azarenka and Sharapova, the world's official #1 and #2. As expected Maria's power was the more severe, but on this day Maria employed heavier and more frequent topspin than customarily, thereby keeping her artillery, still the heavier, more safely inside the lines. Meanwhile Maria's own reactions and court movement proved surprisingly effective in neutralizing most of Vika's attacking bids. Maria won the first set fairly closely, but the second set became routine for the tall princess when Victoria began showing signs of leg trouble. Sharapova d. Azarenka 64 62.
Serena's destruction of Maria Sharapova in the Sunday final was convincing. Intense and calm from the start, Serena allowed herself no careless spells except when confidently ahead in the point or game score. She won all nine of her serving games with relative comfort, her first serve becoming more and more dominating as the match went on. In returning serve, increasingly Serena produced an easy and severe power that took away Maria's server's edge.
But Serena's largest advantage was in her quickness, especially in moving to meet Maria's strongest rockets to the corners. In contrast Maria was often unable to position herself for strong replies to Serena's aggressive thrusts. The many short or soft replies by Maria were easily devoured by Serena. S. Williams d. Sharapova 64 63.
Serena's triumph at Istanbul confirmed her as leading point-gatherer of Third Trimester. Azarenka was second, Sharapova third. But Serena was not ahead in the official standings for the full year, as compiled and published by WTA:
1. Victoria Azarenka, 10,545 ranking points
2. Maria Sharapova, 10,045
3. Serena Williams, 9,400
4. Agnieszka Radwanska, 7,425
Following Istanbul came another round-robin event -- the Tournament of Champions, in Sofia, featuring eight stars ranked slightly below the eight who played at Istanbul. Both Nadia Petrova and Caroline Wozniacki won all three of their round-robin matches, and both won semi-final straight-setters to advance to a final-round meeting. There were many baseline exchanges, but although the New Caroline showed fairly heavy power, Nadia's was heavier and equally consistent. The strong Russian thus collected a comfortable victory, a worthy follow-up to her Tokyo triumph, serving notice of her readiness for 2013.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- FEMALE NOMINEE
Victoria Azarenka captured the official #1 ranking for 2012, just noted, clinching that distinction by winning two round-robin matches in Istanbul. Maria Sharapova was a close second. But it was the third-place holder in the official race and our La Prima for much of the year, Serena Williams, whose achievements compel our recognition as female nominee for 2012 Player of the Year.
Serena's achievements had been magnificent. Held back by an ankle injury early in the year, Serena thereafter recorded a summer of success seldom equaled, capturing Wimbledon, the Olympics, and U.S. Open. She also won clay tournaments at Charleston and Madrid in the spring, the hard-court event in Stanford, and the finale in Istanbul. Her official W-L record for the year was 58-4, a winning percentage rarely surpassed in women's pro tennis. Confirming Serena's dominance over her closest competitors was her W/L mark of 8-0 in head-to-head meetings with Azarenka and Sharapova in 2012.
Serena added other achievements. She with sister Venus won the doubles crowns at both Wimbledon and the Olympics. In Fed Cup action, Serena led the U.S. team by winning two meaningful singles matches in each of America's victories of 2012 -- against Belarus in World Group II play and against Ukraine in earning promotion to the eight-nation World Group for 2013.
If Serena is the clear choice for our honor, it is also clear that both Azarenka and Sharapova merit high honorable mention here. In winning the year's points race, Victoria collected tournament triumphs at six events, including Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Beijing. Her run of 26 consecutive singles wins to start the year was almost unprecedented. Meanwhile Sharapova completed a long return from shoulder surgery by winning Garros 2012, thus completing her Career Grand Slam and restoring Maria's credentials as tennis superstar. She also won clay events at Stuttgart and Rome, and she was runner-up at Australian Open, the Olympics, and Istanbul.
Also deserving mention are the year's #1 doubles pair, Errani-Vinci, and the two singles stars who abruptly broke into the top group this year -- Kerber and Errani, who finished fifth and sixth in the official rankings, respectively. Errani's successes in both singles and doubles lifted her close to the top three in our judging. Another high-level riser was Agnieszka Radwanska, who rose from world #8 one year ago to finish at #4. Petra Kvitova, our selectee in 2011, dropped off in her personal achievements, but she joined Lucie Safarova in carrying Czech Republic again in 2012 to the Fed Cup crown.
Our honoree here, Serena Williams, had been our female nominee twice before, in 2002 and 2010. In the first case we then chose her over Pete Sampras as our overall Player of the Year. In 2010 we chose Rafael Nadal over Serena.
We will select our male nominee next month. Either that individual or Serena will then be chosen Tennis Server's Player of the Year for 2012. We will also name our Pro Tennis Nation of the Year.
WATCH LIST -- REPORT CARD
Three times a year our computer selects the seven risers who are the most likely to move substantially higher. The calculation rests heavily on current level of performance (measured during the trimester just completed) and includes adjustments for age, height, best previous level, and statistical regression. A target ranking twelve months ahead is calculated for each selectee.
Now expiring is the watch list announced one year ago, at the end of 2011, and the seven players who were there listed are now finishing their twelve months of scrutiny. Their achievements while on our list, reviewed here next, gives a mixed picture of success roughly similar to those of previous graduating cohorts:
Two selectees of one year ago succeeded in surpassing their predicted targets. Most successful was Angelique Kerber, now 24, who moved into the sport's top echelon -- rising from rank #33 one year ago to #5 now, against a target of #14. Also rising during her watch-list time was Mona Barthel, now 22, who climbed from rank #67 when selected to #31 in April before slipping to #39 now. Both numbers surpassed her target of #41.
Two other listees of a year ago also moved upward, gaining wide attention, but both fell slightly shy of their targets. Laura Robson, now 18, ranked #133 one year ago and was assigned target #46. Laura, left-handed, climbed steadily during the period and finished at #53. Her top achievement came in reaching the final sixteen at U.S. Open, where she defeated Clijsters and Li. Also rising nicely was American Christina McHale, now 20, who improved from #42 last year to #33 now. Christina's target was #28. (She penetrated to #24 in August, but she slipped backward thereafter.) Christina played singles for U.S. in Fed Cup without loss, winning four matches, two of them meaningful, in helping the Americans regain World Group status for 2013. Meanwhile our other three listees -- Niculescu, Martic, and Scheepers -- went backward in ranking during the period.
NEW WATCH LIST
Here is our new riser list, dated 12 November 2012 -- our sixth watch list since starting the venture. Of the seven new selectees, only one has reached the age of 20. Most are tall, 5-10 or taller. All performed at a much-improved level in Third Trimester. (Listed here by descending age. Official current ranking and our predicted target ranking twelve months hence are shown.)
-- Mallory Burdette, 21, height 5-10. A firm-serving and attacking player, Mallory was the close runner-up as NCAA singles champion 2012, losing to Stanford teammate Nicole Gibbs in the final match. Encouraging results followed in summer tournaments, and Mallory won two main-draw matches at U.S. Open 2012. She then decided to turn pro, renouncing her senior year of collegiate competition. During Third Trimester Mallory defeated three opponents ranked in the first hundred and six in the second hundred. Current ranking #142, predicted target #116.
-- Kristina Mladenovic, 19, 5-11, France. Born of naturalized French parents, Kristina won the juniors at Garros and was runner-up at junior Wimbledon in 2009. Amid wide expectations but bothered by injuries, Kristina's career then slipped backwards, but she recovered with strong results in the ITF circuit in 2011. Her upward trajectory accelerated upon two main-draw wins at U.S. Open 2012 and three in Quebec. She won the new WTA Challenger tournament in Taipei in early November. Current ranking #76, predicted target #51.
-- Laura Robson, 18, height 5-11, Britain. Laura, whose past watch-list tenure is now ending (above), now begins a fresh residency thanks to strong recent performances at U.S. Open and Guangzhou and middle-round success elsewhere. Current ranking #53, predicted target #29.
-- Annika Beck, 18, height 5-7, Germany. Annika surged in 2012 from official ranking of #234 to well inside the first hundred, scoring five match wins over top-hundred players. She won the juniors at Garros 2012, and in October-November, she won consecutive ITF women's tournaments in Ismaning, Germany, and Barnstaple, Britain. Currently #78, predicted target #50.
-- Eugenie Bouchard, 18, height 5-10, Canada. Eugenie won the juniors crown at Wimbledon 2012. Throughout the year she showed excellent success in ITF-circuit tournaments, and she competed in several main-tour events including here in Washington, where she scored two match-wins. After watching her performances here, I wrote praising her "instincts and talent for first-strike tennis." During the year's third trimester Eugenie defeated five top-hundred opponents, accumulating a ranking for the period of #79. Current ranking #148, predicted target #95.
-- Madison Keys, 17, height 5-10, U.S.A. Illinois-born Madison climbed from #315 a year ago to inside the first 150. The year brought six wins over top-hundred players, successes in main-tour qualifiers at Miami and Cincinnati, and a nice win over fellow-riser Bouchard in the final round at ITF-Saguenay in October and a strong run at ITF-Phoenix in November. Madison began pro competition several years ago, when she showed power in serving and stroking along with a one-set win at age 14 over Serena Williams in team tennis. Current ranking #138, predicted target #69.
-- Donna Vekic, 16, height 5-10, Croatia. Four months ago Donna was ranked back in the third hundred. But she won two qualifying-round matches at U.S. Open 2012 and lost the third in split sets, all against opponents ranked in the second hundred. A few weeks later, at the main-tour event in Tashkent, Donna swept through seven qualifying-round and main-draw victories, including against three top-hundred opponents, thus reaching the final round. She also did well in later outings -- at an ITF event in China and then winning two matches at India Open, in Pune, thus sustaining her strong, upward jump. Current ranking #109. Predicted target #66.
Not far behind our seven selectees in our calculations were several Americans -- Samantha Crawford, 17 (won U.S. Open juniors), Nicole Gibbs (NCAA champ), Taylor Townsend, 16 (won Australian Open juniors), Monica Puig, 19, Jessica Pegula, 18, and Maria Sanchez, 23. Strong risers from other countries were Elina Svitolina, 18 (Ukraine ), Maria Joao Koehler, 20 (Portugal), Caroline Garcia, 19 (France), and Saisai Zheng, 18 (China). A semi-finalist in three junior Slams was Anett Kontaveit, 17(Estonia).
Here's offering encouragement and admiration to our new selectees as well as to the many others who missed our watch list but continue to commit their years of youth to their quests for tennis glory.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX -- UPDATE: CRACKING THE TOP 32
Last month we explored the largely hidden race where players seek to attain ranking #32 or better as of 7 January 2013 -- the effective date for determining seedings at Australian Open 2013. We saw that in the five weeks after U.S. Open, four women dropped out of the top 32 in ranking points countable for Australian seeding, replaced by four others from below. Since then, in the four weeks since October 15, the female pros have produced fascinating drama in several late-year events. But only one change took place in the top-32 membership in the race for Australia seeding.
Venus Williams, who had slipped out of the first 32 amid her inactivity following U.S. Open, returned to competition at Luxembourg, 15-22 October. There, the tall American defeated all five of her opponents while losing only one set (to Petkovic). By winning the tournament Venus earned 280 ranking points and re-entered the top 32 in the race for Australia seeding. She now ranks #22 therein, having pushed a dozen players each down one notch.
One of them was the player previously #32 in our ranking -- American Sloane Stephens, who is now just outside the favored realm, at #33. The new hot-seat occupant at #32 is Christina McHale, whose margin against being passed from below is extremely small.
The only remaining main-tour action applicable for seeding at the Open will come in the first week of January, including WTA events in Brisbane and Auckland.