Saturday December 17th, 2011

We continue recapping the most memorable moments, good and bad, from each month in 2011. January and February were still about figuring out what the year was going to bring, March saw a rattled Andy Murray and April produced Fed Cup drama.

In May, we bid an unfortunate farewell to Dinara Safina, and Novak Djokovic thumps Rafael Nadal on clay ... twice. Got something we missed from May? Sound off in the comments and we’ll compile a readers’ edition at the end of the month.

BTB's 10 Memorable Moments From May

10. Dinara's indefinite hiatus: Madrid would be the last time we saw former No. 1 Safina on the court, losing in the second round to Julia Goerges. The stress fracture in her back wasn't healing the way she wanted and it was preventing her from being able to put in the training she needed to find her old form. Thus began Safina's indefinite hiatus from the game. It was a sad development -- after all, this is the woman who was a top five player only a year ago.

Here's hoping the video below isn't the last we see of Safina in action.

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9. Wait, she can win on clay, too?: Petra Kvitova snapped out of her malaise to march to her first clay title, in Madrid, defeating Vera Zvonareva, Li Na and Victoria Azarenka. Kvitova's form rose and dropped dramatically throughout the year, but Madrid was a scary reminder of how dominant she can be when she's in her rhythm.

Check out these highlights from the final, where Kvitova seems able to hit winners at will.

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8. Sasha Vujacic, cheerleader: The ATP WAGs (that's "Wives and Girlfriends" for those of you who don't follow soccer) get their fair share of coverage and screen time. But what of the WTA HABs (that's "Husbands and Boy... OK, you get it)? Their presence at tournaments is less noticeable and, to the extent they are present in the players' box, they remain stoic, silent and, let's face it, they look a little bored.

So bless Vujacic and his familiarity with cheerleading from the sidelines. Maria Sharapova's fiancé accompanied her to Europe for the claycourt swing, and the ex-Laker had no problems letting loose with his encouragement from the box. His "Brava!" could be heard throughout the stands. His constant fist-pumping to himself or his lady, along with his excited high-fives to Sharapova's coach and hitting partner, were all a joy to see. You best bring your A-game in 2012, Sasha.

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7. Profiles in courage: French player Virginie Razzano's fiancé, Stefan Vidal, died from a brain tumor on May 16 at the devastatingly young age of 32. Razzano barely had time to grieve her loss before the French Open rolled around, and she would have been well justified to skip the tournament if she chose. But Razzano played through her grief, in memory of Vidal, because that's what he wanted her to do.

"He wanted [me to] play," Razzano said through tears, "that I continue my life, even if circumstances like these are very, very difficult and painful. But he believes in me, he believes that I have this strength in me, and he had plenty of it, too. It's why we were good together."

There would be no Disney moment for Razzano. She lost her first-round match against Jarmila Gaijdasova 6-3, 6-1 in front of a small crowd on Phillippe Chatrier. But her courage and commitment to honoring Vidal, and her willingness to cope with her grief on such a large stage left an indelible mark on those who knew her story. Sometimes tennis isn't the end. It's the means.

6. Rafa on the ropes: Nadal had never been pushed to a fifth set at the French Open, so you can imagine everyone's shock when it was none other than big-serving American John Isner who had the stamina and the nerve to snap that streak. Isner, not one who is comfortable on red clay, stuck to his typical game plan in the first-round match: Hold serve, play a good tiebreak and let's see how it goes. If the scoreline is any indication, it went pretty well: 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-4. When Isner was able to get the set into a tiebreak, he won the set. When he couldn't hold his serve, he lost. Down two sets to one, Nadal finally found his form and raised his level to pull away from the American.

You know, for a guy who looks like he's going to collapse from exhaustion at any moment, Big John sure does love him some marathon five-set matches, huh?

Highlights from the match. Check out the soft hands on Isner. He had a good day at the net.

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5. Djokovic dodges a bullet: Andy Murray wasn't supposed to have any shot of beating Djokovic when the two clashed in the Rome semifinals. Murray's clay game was improving, but it was nowhere near Djokovic's form. After all, Djokovic was coming off a straight-set win over Nadal in Madrid, his first victory against the Spaniard on clay in 10 attempts.

But after dropping the first set 6-1, Murray roared back, taking the second set 6-3 and eventually going up a break and serving for the match at 5-4 in the third. But just as Nadal blinked in the third-set tiebreak against Djokovic in Miami earlier in the year, throwing in a costly double fault at 2-2, Murray blinked as well, serving two double faults and giving Djokovic just enough wiggle room to get out of the jam.

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4. Paris scare: While on the comeback trail and on the verge of one of the biggest upsets of her career, Sabine Lisicki succumbed to debilitating cramps (brought on by a gluten allergy) after leading 5-2 with a match point in the third set against No. 2 seed Vera Zvonareva at the French Open. Lisicki somehow found a way to keep playing, but the Russian reeled off the next five games to win the second-round match. The image of Lisicki being carried off the court on a stretcher in tears as dusk began to set in Paris still sticks with me. It was a heartbreaking moment for a young player whose body kept letting her down.

Sabine Lisicki was taken off the court on a stretcher at the French Open. (Icon/SMI)

3. Don't blame the ball boy, Viktor: Also at the French Open, Viktor Troicki looked well on his way to upsetting a hobbled Murray, who had sprained his ankle a round earlier. Troicki was up two sets to love before Murray leveled the match and the proceedings were suspended for light, setting up a one-set shootout for the quarterfinals the next day.

Troicki overcame a horrendous (but totally understandable) error by a ball boy on break point, when the kid came darting out onto the court believing the point to be over. Umpire Pascal Maria was forced to call a let and replay the point, much to Troicki's shock and dismay.

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But the Serb would gather himself and get the break in the final set to go up 5-2. Then the nerves began to shake and Troicki lost his rhythm and range. The Scot stayed steady and rallied to win 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.

2. Revenge, Italian style: Sharapova spent the spring hardcourt season getting repeatedly embarrassed by the new fresh-faced ingenues who seemed to relish knocking her off her perch. Sharapova had a strong Indian Wells run that ended at the hands of Caroline Wozniacki. Then she cruised to the Miami final, where she was knocked off in straight sets by Azarenka.

So to capture her first title on European clay, in Rome, beating Azarenka and Wozniacki along the way, had to be a nice "Nuh uh, not so fast, kids" moment for Sharapova. She followed up those two wins by hitting Sam Stosur off the court in the final.

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1. Rafa has no answers: In March, Djokovic and Nadal played two finals on hardcourts, at Indian Wells and Miami, and both went to three sets. Then, in May, they played two finals on European clay and both were straight-set wins for Djokovic. Seriously, was this year weird or what?

Djokovic did the unthinkable, notching his first win over Nadal on clay in Madrid and then following it up with another impressive display in Rome. Watching the highlights of both matches again, all I can do is sit and marvel at Djokovic's quality. When you put all these points together, one thing becomes clear: Rafael Nadal had nowhere to go.

With Roger Federer, Nadal always has the option of attacking his backhand. But the way Djokovic was playing, Nadal had no safety zone. Crush it to the forehand, and Djokovic fired it back with interest. Leave anything short on the backhand, and Djokovic stepped in and fired it flat cross court. Nadal was under pressure on every single ball, whereas Djokovic never seemed bothered by anything Nadal threw at him.

Take the time to watch these highlights. The rallies are incredible and the shotmaking, particularly from Djokovic, is just plain awesome.

Got something we missed from May? Sound off in the comments and we’ll compile a readers’ edition at the end of the month.

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