Monday December 19th, 2011

After a long injury break, Serena Williams let her emotions show after winning her first-round match at Wimbledon. (Kerim Okten/EPA)

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, Novak Djokovic thumped Rafael Nadal on clay … twice. June was full of surprises, but Nadal finally restored order on the red clay of Roland Garros. Got something we missed from June? Sound off in the comments and we’ll compile a readers’ edition at the end of the month.

If there was any month this year that offered the most surprises, it was June. Between Li Na's surprising win at Roland Garros, Roger Federer's streak-snapping performance in Paris and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's historic comeback at Wimbledon, the tennis world was thrillingly turned upside down for four weeks in June. But in case we worried too much about chaos ruling the day, Rafael Nadal's sixth French Open title helped settle our minds. When it comes to the red Paris clay, the King still reigned.

10. Isnut 2.0: You have to feel for John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. As if it weren't bad enough that the two were already on their way to being known solely for their record-breaking marathon match at 2010 Wimbledon, the draw gods had to do the absolutely cruel and unthinkable, pitting them against each other yet again in the first round of Wimbledon.

The situation quickly dissolved into pure comedy. Debates raged on Twitter about whether the match should be scheduled on Centre Court and both Isner and Mahut suddenly had heavy media obligations to satisfy in advance of their match, with Mahut having to revisit what was a very tough and emotional result in front of the cameras. Inevitably, what was supposed to be a straightforward first-round match became the freak show that everyone wanted to see. What resulted was a whole lotta hype and a dud of match, with Isner prevailing 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (5) in two hours and three minutes.

*****

9. The Scottish Way: By now, we've all become familiar with the "Tweener," the shot made famous by Federer at the 2009 U.S. Open, which many considered, up until this year, the single greatest shot ever made. Leave it to Andy Murray to introduce his own take on the shot at Queens:

*****

And lest you think he didn't have the guts to try to pull it off at a Slam:

*****

8. Sabine returns: Less than a month after being carted off on a stretcher at Roland Garros due to cramps, Sabine Lisicki became the third German to crash the WTA scene in 2011. Armed with a cannon of a serve and a booming forehand, Lisicki's game has always been well-suited for grass. She made the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2009 before a series of injuries derailed her young, promising career.

Coming into 2011 ranked No. 175, Lisicki was a mere afterthought. But she won a grasscourt warmup event in Birmingham and received a wild card into Wimbledon, where she saved two match points to upset French Open champion Li in the second round and marched all the way into her first Grand Slam semifinal, eventually succumbing to Maria Sharapova.

She became only the second wild card to reach the semifinals of Wimbledon, and the first German to reach that stage since a little-known Fraulein named Steffi Graf. Her run launched her back into the top 30. Lisicki would finish the year at No. 15 and receive the WTA Comeback Player of the Year award, a remarkable recovery for a woman who fell as low as No. 218 in April.

*****

7. Tomic rising: Much had been expected of Australian Bernard Tomic, he of the funky, junky game that, in this age of power tennis, is one of the more peculiar sights to see. And even though he's still young (he turned 19 in October), one couldn't help but think it was a lot of hype for someone who hasn't proved he can do much on the big stage.

But this was the year that Tomic finally made progress, working his way through qualifying to eventually become the first 18-year-old to reach the quarterfinals of Wimbledon since Michael Chang. The lanky teenager bested Nikolai Davydenko in the first round, upset Robin Soderling in the third and then took a set off Novak Djokovic before losing in four.

*****

6. Serena's tears: June marked the return of Serena and Venus Williams after extended and dramatic bouts with injury. The two took the small, sleepy town of Eastbourne by storm in their one warmup event before Wimbledon, with both showing shaky but impressive form given their long time off. As Wimbledon began, no one knew what to expect from the sisters, particularly Serena. What would her return look like? Could she find the form to defend her title? Could she make another miracle run to the title like she did at the Australian Open in 2007?

All those questions immediately hit the backburner after the younger Williams battled to defeat Aravane Rezai in the first round at Wimbledon. After defeating the pesky Frenchwoman 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, Williams unleashed a flurry of tears as she saluted the crowd and gave a heartfelt, tearful postmatch interview that showed the world how much it meant to her to be back on the court. It was a moment that made even the cynics stop and give pause, a reminder that we're happy to simply see you back on court as well, Serena. It was a long road back.

(Note: Match point and her emotional interview start at the 8:46 mark.)

*****

5. Venus vs. Kimiko: As for Venus at Wimbledon, she played one of the best women's matches of the year in the second round. In a match played before royalty on Centre Court, the 31-year-old Williams and 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm tussled for just under three hours, with Venus prevailing 6-7 (6), 6-4, 8-6. Date-Krumm, who had made the Wimbledon semifinals in 1996, showed that she could still outwit her younger opponents, repeatedly surprising Williams with her deftness at the net.

You know it was a high-quality women's match when the highlights can't be contained to one YouTube video:

*****

4. The Comeback: I believe it was the wise Benjamin Franklin who said, "Nothing is certain except death, taxes and Roger Federer's ability to close out a Grand Slam match after a two-set lead." Until a Wimbledon quarterfinal clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer had built a 178-0 record when winning the first two sets at a Slam.

And he looked well on his way to making it 179-0 after taking the first two sets from Tsonga 6-3, 7-6 (3). But the Frenchman, possibly knowing his chance of an unlikely comeback, relaxed just enough and started to redline his percussive, aggressive game, and took it to Federer for the next three sets.

Suddenly it was Federer reeling, as he scrambled to try to break Tsonga's imposing serve. The crowd overflowed from Centre Court to a jam-packed Henman Hill and nobody could believe what they were seeing, as game after game, Tsonga remained focused and unshakable. After getting the early break on Federer in the decisive set, Tsonga never gave an inch on his serve, eventually clinching the match on a love hold with a service winner out wide for a 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win. It was the most unthinkable of comebacks, with the usually unflappable Federer looking overwhelmed, and the typically flappable Tsonga holding his nerve.

*****

3. Finger wag: It was the "'Wag seen 'round the world" when Federer, rather appropriately, fired an ace to seal his French Open semifinal win over Djokovic and snap the Serb's winning streak at 43 matches. It would be Federer's best performance of the year, serving 18 aces and unleashing a barrage of forehands that left Djokovic scrambling.

For much of the year, that scrambling only helped Djokovic, as his ability to transition from defense to offense was second to none. Perhaps it was the mounting pressure of prolonging the streak, or perhaps it was the presence of that No. 1 ranking up for grabs (a win over Federer would have clinched him the ranking) that slowed him down this time.

But my baseless theory for the result? The prospect of ending the streak and preventing Djokovic from ascending to the top spot put a little more pep in Federer's step and a little more lightning in his shoulder to propel him to a 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) win.

That finger wag on match point said it all: "Not so fast, bucko. Not over my dead body. Never, ever forget about me."

*****

2. Rafa rules: If Federer could carry his semifinal form into the Roland Garros final against Nadal, we knew we would have a match. Nadal hadn't dropped a set since his first-round match against Isner, but wasn't 100 percent convincing through the fortnight. He still looked like the best clay-courter out there, particularly in his straight-set win over Andy Murray in the semifinals. But Nadal would have had his hands full if Federer could put together another master-class serving day.

But theirs is a rivalry of matchups, and at the end of the day, Nadal just knows how to handle Federer on clay. Federer came out of the blocks looking exactly like the man who had subdued Djokovic, quickly building a 5-2 lead before attempting an ill-fated drop shot that seemed to swing the momentum the other way.

Nadal would go on to win seven straight games, and despite a fourth-set charge from Federer, the Spaniard would hold on to win 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1. Nadal matched Bjorn Borg with his sixth title and improved to 45-1 at Roland Garros.

*****

1. Li Na wins the French: An Asian woman winning a Grand Slam title on European red clay? There was no bigger WTA moment this year than Li's inspired performance at the French Open.

Sure, there were, arguably, better championship runs, better tournament matches and perhaps more dramatic moments. But no win signaled a change in tennis on a global stage more than Li's Paris triumph. On her way to the title on her worst surface, Li beat the following players in succession: Petra Kvitova (Madrid champion), Victoria Azarenka (Madrid finalist), Maria Sharapova (Rome champion) and Francesca Schiavone (defending champion).

No asterisks or caveats here. Li beat the in-form players and bested one of the best claycourt players in the game to become the first Chinese player to win a major title. The final match was reportedly watched by 116 million people in China. If that's not a game-changer for the sport of tennis, I don't know what is.

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

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.