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If Serena Williams is the WTA Comeback Player of the Year, Sara Errani is almost certainly the Most Improved Player of the Year (although a case can be made for Angelique Kerber, she made her big run at last year's US Open and just lost to Errani, so it's weakening).
Errani's strong 2012 began at the Australian Open, where she advanced to the quarterfinals and gave Petra Kvitova everything she could handle in a 6-4 6-4 loss.
Now ranked inside the top 40, Errani surged on the clay, taking the title in Acapulco (and beating compatriots Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci en route to the victory). In Barcelona, Errani took out two higher-ranked players (Julia Goerges and Dominika Cibulkova) on the way to her second title of the season, and then cracked the top 25 after winning in Budapest.
Then came the French Open. Seeded 21st, Errani made an improbable run to the final, claiming four high-profile players along the way: 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Angelique Kerber, and defending US Open champion and 2010 finalist Samantha Stosur. In the final, she fell to Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-2, but on the heels of her performance, cracked the top 10 in the world. Not bad for a player who started the year at No. 45 and briefly sunk to No. 48.
Errani would win one more clay title, in Palermo, before her form began to weaken a bit on grass. She bowed out in the third round of Wimbledon, and was on the receiving end of a Golden Set from Yaroslava Shvedova. She then lost in the first round of the Olympics to a resurgent Venus Williams.
Seeded 10th at the US Open, Errani has encountered very little resistance on her path to the quarterfinals, as after needing three sets to dispatch Garbine Muguruza Blanco in the first round, she breezed past Vera Dushevina and Olga Puchkova. In the fourth round, against Kerber, she scored a straight-set victory. For a player who many thought to be a clay specialist, that's not a bad result.
Errani will take on her countrywoman and doubles partner, Roberta Vinci, in the quarterfinals. The two have played five times, all after the 2009 season. Errani holds a 3-2 lead, with the last match coming in Acapulco this season, when Errani cruised past Vinci 6-4 6-1.
Given her form over the course of this season, Vinci's run to the US Open quarterfinals is somewhat unexpected. However, since August dawned, Vinci has raised her level on the hard-court circuit.
Before August, Vinci's best results of the season were semifinals appearances in Acapulco and Estoril as well as a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon. Since then, she made the quarterfinals in Montreal and defeated Jelena Jankovic to win Dallas.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that this will be the most tightly contested of the four women's quarterfinals, given their head-to-head record and recent form. While Vinci has scored two victories over higher-ranked players in Cibulkova and Agnieszka Radwanska, I think that Errani will come through in the end. Give me the French Open finalist in three tough sets, who will burnish her credentials for Most Improved Player.