Players of the Year: Novak Djokovic and Petra Kvitova Head Strong Cast into 2012
It’s a scant fortnight since the men’s calendar knocked the red dust from its shoes in the Davis Cup final and barely a month since the women heard the last squeak of shoe on rubber in Bali and Moscow but, Christmas or no Christmas, the holiday season is as good as over.
Training has already begun for the still tougher year ahead. 2012 has the Olympics shoehorned into its center and, for the men, there is a fortnight shaved off the end: The calendar will be even more jam-packed than it was this year.
With Twitter already abuzz with messages from players packing suitcases for the first tournaments of the year or warming-up in Middle Eastern havens for their Australian Open preparation, time to celebrate the performances that made 2011 so memorable and search for clues to who may make waves in 2012.
And where better to start than with the man of the year, the Serb who dominated the tour from first to—well, almost last.
How fitting it seemed, on the first Sunday in July, that the man from Serbia should become No. 1 and Wimbledon champion at the tournament he dreamed of winning as a child. It had a certain inevitability: his 48-to-1 win-loss record; two Slams and four Masters titles; victory over the reigning champion and world No. 1.
But that was not the end of an extraordinary season that saw Djokovic come of age in the aftermath of Serbia’s Davis Cup win 12 months ago.
By the end of the year, weary and sore as he was during its closing stages, he had scored 70 wins to just six losses. He had 10 titles—three of them Grand Slams—and is now 4,000 points clear of Rafael Nadal in the rankings.
It is a performance that became a contender for the finest ever Open season in the men’s game and, bearing in mind that he achieved it in the era of Nadal and Roger Federer, that is almost as good as it gets.
Supremely athletic, able to defend and attack with equal facility, and blessed with a sharp tactical brain, he is currently the most complete player on the tour. How he handles the pressure of becoming the hunted rather than the hunter may determine whether he fills the remaining two gaps on his resume in 2012: the French Open and Olympic gold.
But with wins over Nadal on clay in two Masters this year—and that Wimbledon title—it is entirely possible he will.
In the meantime, he can enjoy another record: the biggest annual earnings in men’s tennis, a record $12.6 million.
The memory of a tall, unassuming young woman from the Czech Republic at Wimbledon in 2010 may become a moment that, in years to come, recalls the first sighting of a great champion.
Then ranked in the 60s, still growing into her long limbs and flushed with the thrill of the big Wimbledon stage, she dismissed Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Kaia Kanepi before falling to Serena Williams. Kvitova was barely 20 but already had big, left-handed, fearless tennis.
Even so, despite three titles from five finals already in the bag, come Wimbledon 2011 there were few prepared for her serene progress to that same title. Judging from her Mona Lisa smile, she was unsure how to react herself, too.
Her inexperience at this elite level caused a dropping off in form before she regrouped for the Asian swing, reached the semis in Tokyo and then the title in Linz. This timely indoor success launched her into Istanbul where she powered to the WTA Championships unbeaten.
To cap it off, she led the Czech team to Fed Cup glory and won the WTA Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award.
Kvitova started the year at No. 34, ended it at No. 2 and, with her growing self-confidence, she may well become No. 1 in the world by early spring. More significant still, her ability on grass is second to none. Kvitova must start 2012 as favourite for another special Wimbledon title: Olympic gold.
When David Ferrer assessed his career at the start of 2010, he almost decided to call it a day. He had not won a title since June 2008 and it seemed like his career was on the slide.
From a high of No. 4, he was struggling even to stay in the top 20, and with the slump came a devastating loss of confidence.
But Ferrer has always had an unquenchable work ethic. He gave himself the year to turn things around and that’s just what he did, earning enough points to take part in the World Tour Finals (WTFs). And things got even better in 2011.
Working on a more all-court aggressive game, he edged up to No. 5, his highest ranking in more than three years, and produced some of his best form to reach the semis of the WTFs—no mean feat in a season of 73 matches, six finals and a pair of titles.
A tired Ferrer still had one last ace up his sleeve, a stunning five-setter of almost five hours against Argentina’s top man, Juan Martin del Potro in the Davis Cup. It gave Spain a 2-0 lead and weakened del Potro enough for Nadal to finish him off for the title.
Ferrer is almost 30 but is playing with as much passion, energy and success as when he was 25. Whether he can improve his game still more—which he will have to do to match his all-time high—remains to be seen.
One thing’s certain: He will try.
The striking, charismatic German turned 24 during the U.S. Open and she celebrated by reaching her third Grand Slam quarterfinal of the year and of her career.
Coming into New York, Petkovic had scored more match wins than anyone but Wozniacki. She broke into the top 10 for the first time in August with excellent results on the U.S. hard courts, including semifinals in Cincinnati and Carlsbad and wins over Kvitova and Nadia Petrova.
Despite losing to Wozniacki at Flushing, the increasingly-confident Petkovic looked ready to take her momentum through the remaining hard-court season and push for the WTA Championships.
But a chronic knee problem has blighted her tennis before and it flared up during the Beijing final. She subsequently pulled out of Tokyo, Linz and Luxembourg and was unable to take up her place at Bali’s Tournament of Champions.
The evolution of the tall, athletic Petkovic has been a slow burn: She turned pro only five years ago. But her steady maturation bore huge fruits in this, her breakthrough year. She will be a force to be reckoned with in 2012—and will no doubt continue to light up tournaments with her signature dances.
The year may have started in disappointment for Murray, losing in the final of the Australian Open for the second successive year.
In 2010, the slump that had followed lasted through to Wimbledon, but in 2011, a poor hard-court spring broke into sunshine on clay.
He pushed Nadal to the limits in the semis of Monte Carlo, despite an elbow injury, and in the Rome semis, he came close to ending Djokovic’s unbroken streak in the match of the tournament.
Next it was the semis at Roland Garros for the first time, a title on the Queen’s grass and the semis at Wimbledon. Then after shock exit in his first match in Montreal, the season soared.
First he won the Cincinnati Masters title, then made his fourth Grand Slam semi of the year in the U.S. Open and finally took three straight titles in the Far East, including the Shanghai Masters. With 28 wins from 29 matches, he passed Federer in the rankings to reach No. 3 before a groin injury forced him out of the World Tour Finals.
But what stood out, apart from his outstanding autumn run, was a relaxed confidence that grew throughout the year. Apparently enjoying the informal coaching setup he has with the Adidas development program alongside his tried and trusted support team, he seemed to grow a couple of inches and to, well, enjoy himself around the court rather more.
There is, in fact, a sense that, this year, he has an extra factor—the "Djokovic factor"—of self-belief that could take him that one vital step further, to his first Grand Slam.
2011 felt like the year that the tall, intelligent and gifted 22-year-old from Belarus would make the final breakthrough.
Azarenka has risen through the rankings with each successive year but, despite ending 2011 at a career-high of No. 3 and three new singles and two doubles titles in her trophy cupboard, she made only one Grand Slam semifinal—though that Wimbledon result was her best Slam finish so far.
Three times she made opening-round exits and seemed beset by niggling injuries: a foot problem forced her out of Beijing and she retired mid-match on no fewer than four other occasions. Another cloud has appeared in Azarenka’s world, too—Kvitova. The Czech woman’s surge included defeats over Azarenka in the semis of Wimbledon and the finals of both Madrid and the WTA Champions.
At her best, Azarenka is a powerful and dangerous player. Her key, aside from injury concerns, is the consistency that comes from confidence and, like Murray, she started to show a strength of purpose in 2011 that may provide the last piece in the Azarenka puzzle.
If there is one man who has laid down a marker for 2012 success, it is the charismatic Tsonga.
As recently as May, the Frenchman found himself outside the top 20 but then, having discarded his coach, he flourished. Grass launched him upward with the finals at Queen’s followed by a famous victory over Federer to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon.
With the autumn indoor season came two indoor titles in Metz and Vienna and the final of the Paris Masters.
Then in his first appearance at the WTFs since 2008, his joie-de-vivre style of tennis captivated a very different type of London at the O2. And despite losing to Federer in a three-set final, he ended the year back at No. 6, his career high spot of 2008.
Tsonga put his end-of-year improvement down to mental consistency and, in London, promised to focus on getting his speed and movement back. In truth, there did not appear to be much wrong with either, so if he does come back faster and more flexible, he will surely be a major threat to the top five in 2012.
It was the delightful Radwanska who beat Petkovic in the Beijing final, in one of the highest quality women’s matches of the year, to deprive the German of her Istanbul place.
The quiet, slight Polish woman turned pro six years ago having won both the Wimbledon and French junior titles and broke into the top 10 in 2008 after reaching the quarters of the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
By the end of last year, however, she was back to No. 14 and had not won a title since Eastbourne in June 2008.
But 2011 saw a fresh blooming of Radwanska, especially on the hard courts of summer and autumn: the final of Carlsbad, semis in Toronto and then back-to-back Premier titles in Tokyo and Beijing. Playing intelligent, creative all-court tennis, she found a second career surge—and she is still only 22.
Radwanska ended 2011 at a personal high of No. 8 and now perhaps with the maturity and confidence that prevented a permanent breakthrough before. Her many fans—and she was the WTA Fans’ Favorite this year—will hope for more of her special brand of tennis and personality in 2012.
At the beginning of 2010, Dolgopolov was ranked 131 in the world, itself a rise of almost 200 places over the previous year.
At Wimbledon that year, he played what he has since described as his breakthrough match against Tsonga. From two sets down, he leveled it, 7-6, 7-5, before losing the fifth set, 8-10.
Come 2011 and Dolgopolov was ready to make his next attention-grabbing run at the Australian Open, where he turned the tables on Tsonga to come back from a two-sets-to-one deficit with a storming 6-1, 6-1 finish. Then he did the same to Robin Soderling, running the Swede ragged with unexpected drops, angles and spin.
The Dolgopolov run took him into the top 30, and a return to clay during the South American “golden swing” brought still more success: a first ATP final in Brazil and a semifinal place in Acapulco.
On the hard courts, he beat Tsonga again in Miami and on clay in Nice he reached the semis by taking out Ferrer.
The early summer proved less successful, not helped by treatment for pancreatitis, but Dolgopolov went on to take his first title in Umag.
Since then, consistency has not been his watchword. He let slip a nerve-shattering tie-break, 14-16, against Djokovic in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, reached the semis in Metz and the quarters in Shanghai but could not maintain enough momentum to break the top 10 and the WTFs.
But from 48 to 15 in a season proves he is ready to join the party next year.
As a teenager, Lisicki peaked at No. 22 in the rankings in 2009 after winning her first WTA title in Charleston and reaching her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon.
But after a succession of ankle injuries, the German woman managed just four main-tour wins in 2010 and, until she played Miami at the end of March this year, she had won just a single WTA match.
With more matches came more inroads, however. In Charleston she beat Marion Bartoli, in Stuttgart Na Li, and then she won Birmingham.
From a 179 ranking at the start of the year, Lisicki entered Wimbledon as No. 62 and beat Bartoli and Li again before falling to Maria Sharapova in the semis.
By then, she was the talk of the tournament both for her gutsy fight-back from a set down against Li and her ebullient tennis and personality.
Lisicki maintained good form through the U.S. Open series to win her second 2011 title in Dallas, reach the semis of Stanford and Carlsbad and peak at a career-high ranking of No. 15 in November.
Illness hit her end-of-season but the WTA’s Comeback Player Of The Year has the perfect launch-pad to finally fulfil her powerful, all-court talent in 2012.
With the spotlight on Djokovic, it was easy to overlook the other men in the burgeoning tennis country of Serbia.
Troicki was their Davis Cup second-string during their successful 2010 campaign and he began this year just inside the top 30, reaching a career high in June at No. 12. His form has since slipped a little, but in his place has come the articulate, witty Tipsarevic.
Best friend of the illustrious No. 1, Tipsarevic played a key role in Serbia’s Davis Cup semifinal victory by beating Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek and he clearly garnered his own confidence from his country’s success.
He worked his way from outside the top 50 in January to reach five finals and he won two indoor events in Moscow and Kuala Lumpur this autumn—his first ATP titles.
It was a late-season flurry that took him to a career-high of No. 9 and a place as first reserve for the WTFs. Then Murray withdrew and Tipsarevic found himself in the limelight.
Few thought his impact would be significant, but he came within a point of beating Berdych and then overcame a one-set deficit to beat Djokovic for the first time to deny him a semifinal place.
Can he improve still further? Now entering his 10th year as a pro, the odds may be stacked against him. But then they said the same about Mardy Fish…but more of him shortly.
When Stosur walked onto Arthur Ashe to face Serena Williams in the final of the U.S. Open, she had the look of a woman wanting to prove something: how much work she had put into transforming herself from one of the best doubles players in the world, via serious illness, to becoming one of the strongest and smartest singles players.
Her first Grand Slam success came in 2010 when she reached the final of the French Open, beating Williams in three sets in the process.
Then, after a slow start to 2011, she made the finals in Rome and Toronto—this time losing to Williams—and looked increasingly impressive through the U.S. Open draw, beating Petrova, Maria Kirilenko and No. 2 seed Vera Zvonareva.
Along the way, Stosur broke the record for the longest women’s match in New York since tie-breaks were introduced in 1970. In her quarterfinal, she played the longest Open era tie-break, losing it 15-17.
Then in the final, a focused and confident Stosur produced her best tennis of the year to beat Williams in just 73 minutes.
As a result, Stosur became the first Australian woman to win a Slam since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980. And what wouldn’t Australia give for their favorite daughter to win her second on home soil next month.
Turning 30 this month, Fish enjoyed his first birthday in the top 10 as well as memories of two so-near-yet-so-far matches against the very best just the week before: three-set losses to Federer and Nadal at the WTFs.
His was already the story of 2010: a man close to retirement at the end of 2009 but choosing instead a new training regime that helped him reach the finals of four tournaments in under three months, winning two of them. He rose from 108 to 16 by the end of the year, his highest in 10 years on the pro tour.
And still Fish broke new ground this spring, making the semis in Memphis, Delray Beach and Miami and becoming the fourth oldest player to make his top-10 debut.
He reached his third Grand Slam quarterfinal—his first at Wimbledon—made three straight finals in North America and failed, only just, to make the quarters of the U.S. Open after a five-set battle against Tsonga.
Fish ends the year at No. 8 and is making the most of every new step he takes because: “I know there’s a chance I won’t ever come back to this [WTF] event.”
Though with Fish, who knows what more he will find?
She’s unconventional, smart, hard-working, determined and consistent: One has to admire the focus and fight of France’s Bartoli.
She may be the closest that the women’s tour has to the determination and work ethic of Ferrer, and both will end their careers knowing they maximised every ounce of their ability.
By any measure, Bartoli had a good year, one that started at No. 16 in the rankings and ended on a personal year-end high of No. 9.
She reached the finals of Indian Wells, Strasbourg and Stanford, the semis of the French Open and the quarters of Wimbledon—after beating Kvitova for the title in Eastbourne. She dipped during the U.S. Open Series, only to go on an all-or-nothing Far East campaign of four tournaments in four straight weeks that culminated in the Osaka title.
It all added up to the highest tally of matches on the women’s tour but she was thwarted at the 13th hour when she fell ill in Moscow: She needed just one more match win to qualify for Istanbul.
In the event, she got to play a match as an alternate—and won it—before rushing off to her allotted place in Bali. That proved to be a step too far and she retired with an ankle injury.
But come 2012, she’ll be back, jaw clenched and ready to fight once more. And it would really be no surprise if she scrambled another couple of places up the rankings.
Already the youngest junior Australian Open champion—he was 15—Tomic played his first ATP event in Brisbane in January 2009 and went on, in the same month, to become the youngest man to win an Australian Open senior match.
He would not win another main-draw contest until 12 months later at the same tournament, and his only other ATP win in 2010 came at Queen’s. He went on to qualify for Wimbledon but it was in SW19 this year that Tomic’s huge promise was finally fulfilled—a stunning break-through for the 19-year-old who had won just three main-tour matches in the interim.
In becoming the youngest man since Boris Becker to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals, the big-hitting Aussie gained not only a top-100 ranking but also the kudos of beating Nikolay Davydenko and Soderling, as well as taking a set from Djokovic.
Most of his early-season tournaments were Challengers but, not surprisingly, he played only main-tour events after London.
High spots included a defeat of Stan Wawrinka in the Davis Cup playoffs, a quarterfinal finish in Tokyo, having beaten Troicki in two tie-breakers, and beating both Kevin Anderson and Fish to reach the third round in Shanghai.
So after a rise from No. 208 to No. 42 in the space of 12-months and a rapidly-growing tally of top-20 scalps, it looks as though a top-20 ranking of his own beckons the 6'4'' teenager.
Honorable mentions: men
Roger Federer may have had a modest year by his standards—no Grand Slam titles, a temporary drop to No. 4 in the rankings and a quarterfinal exit at Wimbledon—but come the autumn, he went on a roll of three back-to-back titles, an unbeaten 17-match streak, a 70th title in his 100th final and a record sixth WTF title. He also won the ATP Fans’ Favorite for the ninth straight year and the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for a seventh time.
Rafael Nadal, by any standards, had a good year: 10 finals—three of them Slams and four Masters—with titles at the French Open and the Monte Carlo Masters. A year subdued by the all-conquering Djokovic was then lifted by outstanding Davis Cup performances, both against France in the semis—two straight-sets wins for the loss of just 10 games—and in taking the title against Argentina.
Juan Martin del Potro, working his way back to the top level after missing most of 2010 with injury, rose from 485 at the start of the year to No. 11 at the end via two titles from three finals, and two of the most rousing Davis Cup matches of the year against Ferrer and Nadal this month.
Kei Nishikori, whose early pro career was hampered by elbow surgery in 2009, started to show his class in 2011 by reaching the finals of Houston, the semis of Delray Beach, Eastbourne, Kuala Lumpur and the Shanghai Masters, and ending a strong indoor run with the final in Basel. It took him from 98 to a career-high 25, and he’s still just 21.
Milos Raonic, the ATP Newcomer of the Year, enjoyed his first full year on the ATP tour by winning his first title in San Jose and jumping from 156 to 25 before injury forced him out of Wimbledon. Since his return to the indoor season, he has made the semis in Stockholm and finished the year at No. 31.
Honorable Mentions: Women
Caroline Wozniacki did not manage that long-sought-after Grand Slam title but she produced plenty of highlights, including the year-end No. 1 for the second straight year. She won six titles, reached the finals of two more, the semis of the Australian and U.S. Open, and won more matches than any other woman this year. With her strong early-season record on the hard courts, Melbourne may be her favourite for that elusive Major.
Maria Sharapova had the No. 1 ranking in her sights until she twisted an ankle in Tokyo. She qualified for Istanbul but retired after losing two Round Robins and instead ended 2011 at No. 4. It was her highest year-end since 2006 and a rise of 14 places via two Premier titles in Rome and Cincinnati, the finals of Wimbledon and Miami and semis of Indian Wells and Roland Garros.
Na Li became Asia’s first Grand Slam singles champion at Roland Garros after almost sealing her moment of glory in Australia: She lost to Clijsters in the final. She lit up the first half of 2011 with her sharp, clean tennis on court and her wit and charm off court. Despite a drastic fall in form and loss of confidence in the second half of the year, she continued a year-on-year rise up the rankings to, at the age of 29, a year-end-high of No. 5.
Francesca Schiavone almost made it two French Open titles in a row before losing out to Li in the 2011 final. She lost ground during the rest of the year, but notched up the longest active streak of Open era Grand Slam appearances—45—at the U.S. Open. The fighting spirit and durability of the 31-year-old is renowned and she claimed two of the three longest matches of the year: her defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova at the Australian Open in 4hrs 44mins and her loss to Tamira Paszek at Wimbledon in 3hrs 41mins.
Serena Williams, absent for a year with injury and illness, made a remarkable return to the June grass. She reached the fourth round of Wimbledon but it was the U.S. Open Series that felt the full force of her tennis with back-to-back titles at Stanford and Toronto. Her loss in New York, her 17th Grand Slam final, was only her second hard-court loss in 20 matches. She withdrew from the rest of the season for health reasons, but with some winter exhibitions under her belt, she could be gearing up for another Major in 2012.