The Top 20 Tennis Breakthrough Performances of the Year

JA AllenSenior Writer ISeptember 14, 2012

The Top 20 Tennis Breakthrough Performances of the Year

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    So far 2012 has been remarkable season in tennis for many reasons. 

    After Andy Murray won his first major at the 2012 U.S. Open, it meant that each of the top four men in tennis had won a Grand Slam title.

    Roger Federer regained the No. 1 ranking after a long absence from the top, reinforcing the notion that age 30 is not a death sentence in tennis.

    Serena Williams swept up every major title this summer—after Maria Sharapova captured her first French Open title in June.

    But probably what stands out most so far in 2012 are the number of breakthrough performers populating professional tennis.

    A few players, rooted in place a long time, finally broke through to the upper echelons of the game while some relative newcomers had an occasion to showcase their potential and significantly advance in the rankings. 

    The breakthrough performances took players to levels they had never before achieved.

    They are all the 2012 most-improved players to watch from now until the end of year as the tour turns the corner and heads toward 2013. 

20. Mallory Burdette, United States, Age 21

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    Standing 5’10" and playing right-handed, Mallory Burdette generates powerful ground strokes. She also uses a two-handed backhand for depth and accuracy.

    Burdette will return to college to finish her commitment at Stanford during 2012-2013 school year.

    But this summer she took some time off to play a few tournaments—enough to earn a wild card into the U.S. Open.

    Once in the draw, Burdette faced her first round opponent, Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland. Burdette eased past the Swiss 6-4, 6-3 and into the second round.

    There the Stanford senior met Lucie Hradecka from the Czech Republic but once again, Burdette played the superior game, advancing to the third round at the 2012 U.S. Open.

    Her third round opponent, however, was Maria Sharapova, and Burdette did not get past the long-legged Russian, losing 6-1, 6-1.

    At age 21, Burdette will no doubt be around for a long time. Her play at this year’s U.S. Open indicates much promise for the future pro.

19. Ricardas Berankis, Lithuania, Age 22

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    Ricardas Berankis began the year stuck below 100—at the 125 spot in the ATP rankings as he headed into Brisbane where he failed to qualify for the main draw.

    He also failed to qualify for the main draw at the Australian Open.

    As a former top-rated junior, entering the pro ranks was not a smooth transition for the Lithuanian. That natural hurdle, plus early injuries, kept Berankis sidelined for a long while.

    2012 was where he began the process of recapturing his game. But it turned out to be a slow process.

    With few wins and another failure to qualify at Wimbledon, Berankis returned to Challenger tournaments to improve his ranking and regain some confidence.

    After that step, Berankis advanced to the round of 16 at Atlanta losing to Kei Nishikori of Japan in the round of 16.

    At the next tournament in Los Angeles, he advanced all the way to the finals where he lost to Sam Querrey who won the event. In Washington D.C. Berankis made it to the second round, losing to Mardy Fish.

    Even though his successes over the summer seemed small, by the time the U.S. Open arrived, Berankis had moved up to the No. 88 ranking, well inside the top 100.

    It will be interesting to see if the young man from Lithuania can continue his rise and regain some of that glory from his junior days on tour.

    Berankis is a player with much promise, and 2012 marks the restart of his true professional career.

18. Heather Watson, Great Britain, Age 20

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    Heather Watson of Great Britain began her year in Australia ranked No. 106. In order to gain entry into the main draw at Hobart, Watson had to qualify. Once there, she lost in the round of 32 to Tsvetana Pironkova.

    At the 2012 Australian Open Watson had the misfortune to meet and lose to the eventual champion Victoria Azarenka in the opening round.

    In Miami, with her rank sinking to No. 129, the Brit advanced to the third round, losing once again to Azarenka in straight sets.

    Moving on to the clay court season, at Estoril, Watson realized success after qualifying to get into the main draw. She advanced to the round of 16 where she lost to Czech Petra Cetkovska.

    At the 2012 French Open, after once again qualifying to gain admittance into the main draw, Watson held on for two rounds, losing to German Julia Goerges.

    Prior to Wimbledon, Watson advanced to the round of 16 at Birmingham before falling to Roberta Vinci in three sets. Then at Wimbledon she advanced to the third round, going out to Agnieszka Radwanska, the No. 2 seed from Poland.

    Her success at the All England Club brought Watson into the top 100—landing at the No. 79 spot.

    When she advanced to the second round at both Stanford and Carlsbad, her ranking rose as high as world No. 67.

    After falling in the first round of the U.S. Open, Watson retreated to the No. 72 spot, but that is still well above where she began.

    Watson is 34 ranking points to the good in a breakout season for the young Brit.

17. Lukas Lacko, Slovakia, Age 24

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    Currently ranked world No. 57, Lukas Lacko began the year considerably down from that spot—ranked No. 112.

    After qualifying, Lacko defeated No. 30 ranked Ivan Ljubicic in Round 1 followed by a win over No. 42 Donald Young in the second round. Lacko had reached the third round of the 2012 Australian Open where he fell to the No. 2 seed, Rafael Nadal.

    It was a good beginning. It moved the Slovak inside the top 100.

    Lacko moved on to compete at Zagreb in Croatia. There he defeated Potito Starace of Italy, Alex Bogomolov Jr., Robin Haase, and Marcos Baghdatis to advance to the finals.

    There he lost to Russian Mikhail Youzhny.

    But his wins in Zagreb plus his advancement at the Australian Open moved Lacko to the No. 65 spot on the ATP rankings.

    These two breakout results in the two back-to-back tournaments allowed the Slovak to rocket up the rankings and, more importantly, add considerably to his confidence as he moved ahead in 2012.

    Later at Halle, Lacko reached the second round, losing again to Nadal. But at Wimbledon, the Slovak advanced to the third round where he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

    2012 resonates as the 24-year-old Lacko's first season in the top 100.

    The Slovak will be hoping to move into the top 50 before the end of his breakout season.

16. Christina McHale, United States, Age 20

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    As the United States waits for the next wave of talent to emerge, Christina McHale shows much promise.

    After two years on tour, at 20 years of age, McHale broke through into the top 100 in 2011, finally reaching No. 42 by the end of the season.

    So far in 2012, her play has been consistent. Her ranking climbed as high as world No. 24, although she sits now at No. 30.

    She started her 2012 campaign to reach the top in January—advancing to the round of 16 in Auckland and later reaching the round of 32 at the 2012 Australian Open.

    Following in February, McHale advanced to the round of 16 in Paris followed by a quarterfinal finish in Doha.

    As the hard-court season got underway at Indian Wells, the young American reached the round of 16 but fell in the second round at Miami to Petra Kvitova.

    During the clay court season which ended at Roland Garros, McHale reached the third round, falling to former French Open champion Li Na of China.

    On grass at Wimbledon, McHale once again reached the third round where she lost to Angelique Kerber.

    Returning to the United States and the hard-court season, she reached the quarterfinals in Carlsbad. In Montreal McHale advanced to the third round but fell in the first round at Cincinnati. 

    With her continued rise up the rankings, the American entered the main draw at the U.S. Open seeded No. 21.

    Unfortunately, McHale lost her opening round match to Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

    At 5’7" McHale uses her tennis mental acumen to her advantage on court. She has the court savvy at a young age to rise in the ranks, but she still fights to equal the drive and the power of Justine Henin.

    McHale has the talent to get there. Her rise in the rankings during 2012 will just whet her appetite to achieve more.

15. Grigor Dimitrov, Bulgaria, Age 21

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    Grigor Dimitrov began 2012 ranked world No. 76. To date, he has reached the No. 60 spot on the ATP rankings ladder.

    The early part of the year was not easy. Dimitrov's ranking fell out of the top 100 by the time the young Bulgarian entered the tournament in Miami.

    But once there, Dimitrov advanced to the round of 16, losing to Janko Tipsarevic after upending Tomas Berdych in the third round.

    The results in Miami moved Dimitrov to the No. 86 position in the rankings as the clay-court season began.

    In Nice, after qualifying to get into the main draw, Dimitrov advanced two rounds before losing to Gilles Simon in the round of 16.

    But his real breakthrough moment came in London at the Queen's Club. Dimitrov made it all the way to the semifinals before losing to Argentine David Nalbandian.

    Later in Bastad on clay, the Bulgarian once again reached the semifinals losing to David Ferrer.

    He also reached the semifinals in Gstaad losing to Thomaz Bellucci.

    While hard courts do not seem to be his strength at the moment, Dimitrov has made considerable inroads in 2012.

    Formerly touted as the next coming of Roger Federer, this may end up being the season when Dimitrov lives up to his expectations.

    2012 could be his breakout season as the tour heads indoor. Dimitrov is definitely someone to watch.

14. Ryan Harrison, United States, Age 20

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    It seems like we have been watching Ryan Harrison for quite some time, but actually, it has not been that long. He is, after all, only 20 years of age.

    Harrison began the year ranked No. 79 and currently sits at the No. 55 spot, although in July he had reached as high as No. 43.

    His increases in rankings and his on-court improvements have come slowly but steadily so far in his career.

    Earlier this season, he reached the semifinals at San Jose where he lost to Milos Raonic of Canada.

    At Indian Wells, Harrison reached the round of 16, losing to Gilles Simon in a very tight contest, 6-7, 7-5, 1-6.

    In Houston, he reached the quarterfinals.

    Later Harrison advanced to the semifinals at Eastbourne, losing to Italian Andreas Seppi.

    Then, in July, Harrison advanced to the semifinals of Newport where he lost to countryman John Isner.

    After his second full year on tour, Harrison has yet to reach an ATP final but reached three semifinals so far in 2012.

    Although his advancements in singles have been consistent, Harrison's breakout moments so far this year have come in his doubles play where he won a title in doubles with partner Matthew Ebden in Atlanta.

    He also reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 U.S. Open with his brother Christian Harrison. The doubles play will undoubtedly increase his skills in singles play.

    Harrison will work hard to finish 2012 strong by breaking back into the ATP top 50.

13. Ekaterina Makarova, Russia, Age 24

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    The tall Russian is currently ranked world No. 29.

    She began the year ranked No. 54, entering the tournament in Sydney unseeded. After qualifying, Makarova advanced to the first round, losing to Li Na of China 6-0, 6-3.

    At the 2012 Australian Open, however, Makarova reached the quarterfinals, defeating Serena Williams in the round of 16. She lost her quarterfinal match to Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-3. 

    Her results at the Australian Open saw her advance to the No. 42 spot in the WTA rankings. 

    Makarova reached the second round at Indian Wells, but in the round of 16 in Miami, she lost once again to Maria Sharapova.

    After a mediocre clay-court season, Makarova entered the French Open ranked world No. 38—but she fell in the first round to Sloane Stephens.

    On the grass in Birmingham, the Russian made it all the way to the semifinals where she lost to Melanie Oudin. At Eastbourne, she reached the quarterfinals, falling to Angelique Kerber. At Wimbledon she lost in round two, again to Kerber.

    After modest results during the U.S. Summer Series, Makarova advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open, losing to eventual champion, Serena Williams—the same lady she had defeated at the 2012 Australian Open.

    By this time her ranking had moved up to No. 29—moving up 25 points in this break-out season for the Russian.

12. Martin Klizan, Slovakia, Age 23

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    Currently ranked No. 46, Martin Klizan began the year ranked No. 117.

    2012 has been a remarkable year for the young man from Slovakia. 

    When he entered the 2012 U.S. Open, Klizan was ranked No. 52, having spent the majority of his year playing Challenger events and winning primarily on clay, boosting his ranking.

    But it was at this year's U.S. Open that Klizan announced his presence to the rest of the tennis world when he upset the No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second round, 6-4, 1-6, 6-1, 6-3.

    He followed that by also defeating the No. 32 seed Jeremy Chardy in the third round, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

    Klizan had made it to the round of sixteen at a Grand Slam event for the first time in his career.

    In the fourth round, however, the Slovak lost to the No. 12 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia, 5-7, 4-6, 0-6.

    Klizan's run during the 2012 U.S. Open had ended.

    The lefty showed a great deal of potential in this tournament. His advancement in the draw allowed him to climb to No. 46 in the ATP rankings. 

    Klizan is an interesting figure; whether he can build on his 2012 U.S. Open success after his breakout performance is yet to be seen. 

11. Steve Johnson, United States, Age 22

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    Steve Johnson began the year ranked 372 by the ATP.

    But he was still in college and still not fully immersed in the pro tennis tour.

    After some success this summer when he turned his full attention to the professional ranks, Johnson gained main entry into the U.S. Open with a wild card.

    This year's run at Flushing Meadows took him to the third round, which constituted a breakthrough for the man in his first major effort.

    Johnson started strong, defeating Rajeev Ram in the first round 6-3, 7-6, 6-3. In the second round Johnson met the talented Ernests Gulbis, upsetting him 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4. 

    The third round brought Johnson face-to-face with the 13th-seed Frenchman Richard Gasquet. The Frenchman, however, won in straight sets, ending Johnson's U.S. Open run.

    But this event undoubtedly marked the beginning of a great career for the young American.

    After his run at the U.S. Open, Johnson climbed to the No. 180 spot in the ATP.

    The Open provided everyone an opportunity to see Johnson in action. It was a promising first look. 

10. Sloane Stephens, United States, Age 19

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    Probably no teenager from the United States attracted more attention so far this year than Sloane Stephens.

    At age 19, she is currently ranked No. 38 in the world—her highest WTA ranking to date. 

    Stephens turned pro in 2009 at the age of 16 but did not play her first professional match until the age of 17 after enjoying a great junior career on tour.

    Stephens has a potentially lethal serve, and as she matures, it will become the foundation of her game. For a baseliner, Stephens moves exceptionally well.

    Her forehand is powerful and her two-handed backhand is solid.

    With her ranking increasing in early 2012, Stephens often gained entry into the main draws but usually found herself out by the second round.

    To illustrate: She lost in Round 2 at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Rome but did ease into the third round in Miami before the clay-court season began.

    During the 2012 French Open, however, Stephens advanced to the fourth round, losing to Samantha Stosur.

    The following month at Wimbledon, she made it to the third round before losing to German Sabine Lisicki.

    In Washington D.C. Stephens advanced to the semifinals where she lost to Magdalena Rybarikova.

    At the U.S. Open this year, she faced Francesca Schiavone in the opening round, winning that match 6-3, 6-4. In the second round Stephens upended Tatjana Malek 5-7, 6-6, 6-2.

    Finally in the third round, Stephens lost, after a solid beginning, to former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic 6-7, 6-4, 6-2.

    2012 has been a breakthrough season for the American Sloane Stephens.

9. David Goffin, Belgian, Age 21

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    David Goffin of Belgium began the year world ranked No. 174. Today he is ranked No. 56.

    Goffin is slight of build, but he plays a very smart game and has used his on-court prowess to find success so far in his career.

    After a few minor wins in 2012, Goffin emerged at Roland Garros, ready to do battle.

    After three rounds, Goffin qualified, advancing into the main draw. There he upset Radek Stepanek in the first round and followed that with a win over Arnaud Clement in Round 2.

    In Round 3 he met and defeated Slovak Lukasz Kubot in straight sets. Finally Goffin advanced to the round of 16. There he would meet his idol, Swiss Roger Federer, who defeated him in four sets.

    After the tournament at Roland Garros concluded, Goffin's ranking rose from 109 to 66.

    The young Belgian's breakout performance at the 2012 French Open demonstrated the intricacy of his shot-making abilities which all the world witnessed.

    Then at Wimbledon, Goffin defeated Bernard Tomic in the first round, losing eventually to American Mardy Fish in the third round. This saw his ranking rise to No. 59.

    At Winston-Salem Goffin reached the quarterfinals where he lost to big John Isner. But Goffin would lose in the opening round of the U.S. Open.

    It will be interesting to see just how high Goffin can rise during the rest of this year.

8. Jack Sock, United States, Age 19

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    Teenager Jack Sock turned pro in 2011, ready for the rigors of a professional tennis career.

    At the beginning of the year, he was ranked No. 381. By the end of the summer of 2012, his ranking had risen to the No. 209 spot.

    Flushing Meadows was the setting for his breakthrough performance. Sock advanced to the third round during his second entry into the U.S. Open.

    He began by defeating German Florian Mayer in Round 1—leading 6-3, 6-2, 3-2 when Mayer had to retire.

    In Round 2 Sock upset Italian Flavio Cipolla 6-2, 6-2, 6-4.

    In the third round Sock faced the No. 11 seed Nicolas Almagro. The two battled full out until Sock finally fell 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-1—running out of gas.

    The match showed the power and the determination of the young American as he faced the seasoned pro.

    The future looks bright the young American and for U.S. tennis.

    Hopefully Sock will increase his ranking during the remainder of 2012, working his way into the top 100.

7. Laura Robson, Great Britain, Age 18

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    Laura Robson may be only 18 years old, but she has come of age on the tennis stage this summer.

    It really became obvious that she was something special at this year's U.S. Open.

    During the tournament, Robson eliminated some well-known stars one at a time as she tried to advance to the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

    In the first round, Robson defeated American Samantha Crawford who qualified to get into the draw. Nonetheless, it was a tight match with Robson pulling it out 6-3, 7-6.

    Robson's second round opponent was crowd favorite Kim Clijsters who was playing her final U.S. Open. The Belgian announced prior to the start of the tournament that this would be her good-bye to professional tennis.

    Robson and Clistjers fought down to the wire in two sets with each ending in a tiebreak.  The Brit won both.

    The second round match went her way 7-6, 7-6 under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium.

    One star was fading while another one was coming into focus.

    In Round 3, Robson faced another fan favorite. Seeded No. 9, Li Na of China did not play her best tennis. Once again, the teenager prevailed 6-4, 6-7, 6-2 in a pivotal match.

    Throughout the Open, Robson hung tough in often difficult circumstances, seizing her opportunities.

    Robson survived until the fourth round where the defending champion Samantha Stosur defeated her 6-4, 6-4.

    But her run at the 2012 U.S. Open was a breakthrough performance for Laura Robson.

6. Brian Baker, United States, Age 27

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    Brian Baker is not a newcomer. He has been on tour before but suffered numerous injuries and subsequent surgeries.

    He was out almost six years before returning to the game to give himself one last chance to find success.

    In 2012, moreover, Baker rose from the No. 456 ranking spot to his current ranking at No. 63.

    Baker worked his way up during the early part of the year by participating in Futures and Challenger events.

    But he made a real impact at Nice on clay, working his way through to the final where he lost to Nicolas Almagro.

    That sent Baker's ranking up to the No. 141 spot.

    After qualifying to make the main draw at Wimbledon, Baker survived until the round of 16, losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber.

    After that breakout performance, Baker shot up into the top 100—resting at No. 79.

    By the end of the summer, Baker had worked his way up to the No. 63 spot.

    Brian Baker is back in the hunt working his way up—finally living his dream to play professional tennis.

5. Varvara Lepchenko, United States, Age 26

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    New U.S. citizen Varvara Lepchenko continues her climb up the WTA rankings ladder.

    Ultimately, Lepchenko may be the best of the upcoming U.S. tennis prospects at the moment.

    Climbing to her highest ranking of No. 22 this week, Lepchenko is making her mark on U.S. women's tennis in a very positive manner.

    She started 2012 by reaching the main draw of the Australian Open after qualifying to get into the event. Unfortunately, she fell in the first round to Daniela Hantuchova. Her ranking, however, climbed to No. 113.

    At the tournament in Doha, Lepchenko advanced to the round of 16, losing to Agnieszka Radwanska. Her ranking moved into the top 100.

    During the clay court season, Lepchenko made it to the quarterfinals of Madrid, again falling to Radwanska. But her ranking rose to No. 59.

    After failing to qualify in Rome and losing in the first round in Brussels, Lepchenko advanced to the fourth round at the French Open, losing to Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-1.

    This was a real breakthrough event for the American. Her ranking rose to No. 51.

    Again Lepchecko lost to Kvitova at Wimbledon in 2012—this time in the third round.

    Lepchenko’s play on court continued to improve. After the Wimbledon fortnight, she was ranked in the top 50.

    Overall Lepchenko has played a great deal of tennis and has seen her ranking rise steadily throughout 2012.

    She entered the U.S. Open seeded at No. 31. In her first round Lepchenko defeated Mathilde Johansson of France 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. In the second round, the American took out Anastasia Rodionova 6-2, 6-2. She lost her third round match with Sam Stosur, the defending champion, 7-6, 6-2.

    There is little doubt that Lepchenko will be firmly ensconced in the women’s top 20 by year’s end.

    2012 has been a breakthrough season for Lepchenko.

4. Angelique Kerber, Germany, Age 24

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    German Angelique Kerber has made a significant impact on the women's tour in 2012, rising steadily in the ranks into the top 10. The German currently sits at No. 6.

    Kerber started the year ranked No. 32.

    She began by reaching the semifinals at both Auckland and Hobart where she lost to Flavia Pennetta and Mona Barthel, respectively.

    Ranked at No. 30 and seeded at the Australian Open, Kerber advanced to the third round where she lost to world No. 4 Maria Sharapova.

    The German won her first title of the season in Paris, defeating Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli in the final.

    By the time Kerber entered the draw at Indian Wells, she had advanced her ranking into the top 20—resting at No.19. During Indian Wells she reached the semifinals where she lost to world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.

    In Copenhagen, Kerber won her second title of the season defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final.

    After being dismissed in the quarterfinals of Stuttgart and the third round in Madrid, Kerber advanced to the semifinals in Rome, losing once again to Sharapova.

    At the French Open, seeded No. 10, Kerber lost to the eventual finalist Sara Errani in the quarterfinals. She lost in the finals at Eastbourne to Tamira Paszek prior to the start of Wimbledon.

    At the All England Club, Kerber advanced to the semifinals where she lost in a titanic effort against the No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska.

    Kerber advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2012 Summer Games in London and the third round in Montreal before making her way into another final in Cincinnati where she lost to Li Na of China.

    At the U.S. Open, Kerber had the misfortune to run into a red-hot Errani in the round of 16 where she lost.

    Kerber has used 2012 as a springboard into the top 10, hoping to advance one more step into the top five. It has been a breakthrough season for the German.

3. John Isner, United States, Age 27

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    John Isner's professional career waited until he finished college at the University of Georgia. Since turning his full attention to the professional tour, Isner's progress has been slow and steady.

    The 6'9 Isner always possessed a big, powerful serve—but the rest of his game took time to develop.

    At last, in 2012, Isner has arrived, winning consistently on tour, climbing up in the rankings.

    Isner has worked his way from world No. 18 to the No. 10 spot. 

    In the process he has become the No. 1 ranked male player in the United States.

    The big guy reached the finals at Indian Wells, losing to Roger Federer 6-7, 3-6. He also reached the final in Houston, losing to Juan Monaco 2-6, 6-3, 3-6.

    But Isner won in Newport on grass defeating Lleyton Hewitt in the final and reached the semifinals in Atlanta losing to countryman Andy Roddick.

    After advancing to the semifinals in Canada while also reaching the top ten for the first time in his career, Isner won the tournament in Winston Salem, his second ATP title of the year.

    Although he was favored to go far at the 2012 U.S. Open, Isner was dismissed in the third round by German Philipp Kohlschreiber.

    2012 has been a breakthrough year for Isner who now leads the charge for the United States.

2. Victoria Azarenka, Belarus, Age 23

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    Victoria Azarenka made 2012 her own by ascending to the No. 1 ranking, winning her first major and impacting the outcome of the many tournaments she entered.

    After years of struggling with her temper, Azarenka was finally able to control her emotions on court. The lady from Belarus climbed over the others in her way to lay claim to the top ranking in women's tennis.

    She began 2012 world ranked No. 3. But that would quickly change.

    In rapid succession Ararenka won Sydney, the 2012 Australian Open, Doha and Indian Wells.

    The media was beginning to compare her start to the season with Novak Djokovic's beginning in 2011 when the Serb went all the way to the French Open before losing his first match.

    Azarenka, however, would lose in the quarterfinals of Miami to Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli.

    Then the world No. 1 would lose in the finals of Stuttgart and Madrid before withdrawing in Rome with injury.

    At the French Open, Ararenka hoped to win her second consecutive Grand Slam title, but she was upset in the fourth round by Dominika Cibulkova.

    Azarenka lost her No. 1 ranking to Maria Sharapova when the Russian went on to win her first French Open title.

    At Wimbledon, as the No. 2 seed, Ararenka advanced to the semifinals where she lost to eventual champion Serena Williams.

    But, Azarenka regained the No. 1 ranking when Sharapova failed to win the Wimbledon title.

    Azarenka lost again to Williams during the semifinals at the 2012 Summer Games in London.

    It seemed only fitting that at the 2012 U.S. Open Azarenka would reach her second Grand Slam final of the year but lose to the ever-present Serena Williams.

    Azarenka, however, retained her No. 1 ranking and will endeavor to end the year ranked No. 1.

    2012 has proven to be a breakthrough season for Azarenka.

1. Sara Errani, Italy, Age 25

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    Sara Errani blasted her way into the women's top 10 after breakthrough performances at both the 2012 French Open and the 2012 U.S. Open—coming from out of nowhere, it seemed.

    Having played on tour for many seasons and turning pro in 2002,  Errani began to make her way through the draw at the Australian Open. That tournament marked the turning point for the Italian.

    She entered the Australian Open ranked No. 48 and advanced all the way to the quarterfinals where she lost to World No. 2 Petra Kvitova. Eranni's ranking rose to No. 36 as she began play in Monterrey.

    There she advanced to the semifinals, losing to Timea Babos in three tight sets.

    Following Monterrey, Errani won in Acapulco, defeating fellow Italian Flavia Pennetta in the final. She also won in Monte Carlo over Dominika Cibulkova in the final. In Budapest, Errani eliminated Russian Elena Vesnina in the final.

    Errani, it seemed, was on fire—especially on the clay.

    At the French Open, however, Errani had her brightest hour advancing to her first Grand Slam final where she lost to Maria Sharapova, whose game was picture-perfect that day.

    As the runner up at Roland Garros, Errani moved up to the No. 10 ranking.

    After advancing to the third round at Wimbledon, Errani won again on the clay of Palermo, defeating Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.

    The Italian reached the semifinals at New Haven, losing to Petra Kvitova before moving on to the 2012 U.S. Open.

    There the 5'4" Errani faced off against Serena Williams in the semifinals after once again rolling through her draw at a Grand Slam tournament.

    Once again, Errani could not overcome the power of Williams' game, losing in straight sets.

    But no one can deny that Errani had the best breakthrough season of 2012—ending ranked No. 7 after the U.S. Open concluded.