Wednesday December 21st, 2011

Serena Williams won her first tournament in over a year at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif. (Matt Cohen/Zumapress)

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, April produced Fed Cup drama and 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. July produced two first-time Wimbledon winners and the triumphant return of Serena Williams.

July opened with the crowning of two first-time Wimbledon champions, both from small Eastern European countries, further cementing how much this 2011 season would surprise us. And though Novak Djokovic had proved his dominance by the time Wimbledon rolled around, his win there, as well as Petra Kvitova's, felt truly monumental. The two wins represented a tectonic shift in the tennis world, opening up our eyes to just exactly what these new faces were capable of.

But while new champions are always exciting, there's something comforting about seeing the tried-and-true champions you can rely on. And just when we were getting used to the chaos that ruled the WTA for most of the year, Serena Williams landed in Palo Alto, Calif., to send up a flare, signaling to the world that she indeed was ready and willing to restore order.

BTB's 10 Memorable Moments From July

10. Harrison cracks the top 100: Sure, he broke into the top 100 earlier in the year, but this time, after his semifinal loss to Mardy Fish in Atlanta, Ryan Harrison re-entered the top 100 for good (for now?) and would finish the year at No. 79. Particularly encouraging was his ability to back up his semifinal appearance in Atlanta with a quality performance the next week, when he once again lost in the semifinals to Fish in Los Angeles.

No one doubts the 19-year-old's will to win, but wanting to win all the time is entirely different from actually putting in the work to be able to play consistently to give yourself a chance. These couple of weeks felt like a positive step for Harrison.

9. North American Fish: If there was any doubt about whether Fish was the real deal or not, he spent much of the summer dispelling that notion. It started with a solid run to defend his title in Atlanta, where he saved two match points to beat John Isner in the final 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2. He backed that up a week later with a final appearance in Los Angeles, where he lost to an oddly inspired Ernests Gulbis.

*****

8. Kleybanova's fight with cancer: It's never good to see a young, hard-working player sidelined for any reason, let alone cancer. Alisa Kleybanova, ranked as high as No. 20 in 2010, announced on her 21st birthday that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and was taking an indefinite leave from the game in order to undergo treatment and chemotherapy. Reports are that she's doing well and in good spirits. Here's hoping we see that herky-jerky technique back on the court again.

Here she is in healthier times, talking about her love for swimming:

*****

7. McWozzilroy: When rumors began to surface that U.S. Open golf champion Rory McIlroy and WTA world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki were getting cozy around the streets of London, I'm not sure how to explain the general reaction. It fell somewhere between apathy and mild amusement. The two seemed more than happy to confirm their coupley status (even if McIlroy's ex-girlfriend was more than happy to confirm that she was not happy with how it all went down), and by August, McIlroy was flying all over the globe to accompany Wozniacki at tournaments.

6. Ivanovic hires Sears: Ana Ivanovic finally put to rest all the coaching rumors, hiring away Nigel Sears, then the head of women's tennis at the LTA, to be her full-time coach. As much as this was positive news for Ivanovic fans, it had just as much -- if not more -- impact on the LTA, which was left scrambling to find a replacement. The LTA finally did find someone to take the vacant role (late in the year), promoting Davis Cup captain Leon Smith to the head of both men's and women's tennis and hiring Judy Murray to take over as captain of the Fed Cup team. As for Ivanovic, the addition of Sears has been a work in progress, but there has been progress. The Serb seems to have finally found a stable force in her corner whom she trusts.

5. Hometown horror: The U.S. hosted a Rafa-less Spain in Austin, Texas, in the Davis Cup quarterfinals and it turned out to be a heartbreaking loss for the Americans. It was the first time Mardy Fish had to wear the title of top-ranked American -- making things slightly more awkward in front of Andy Roddick's adopted hometown crowd. Fish fought valiantly but came up short in two very winnable rubbers.

On Day 1, Fish lost to Feliciano Lopez 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 8-6. And then, after the Bryans gave the Americans life with a doubles win on Saturday, Fish dropped another tight affair, to David Ferrer, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-6 (5). It was a bad weekend for Fish, but the fact that he was able to rebound and have a strong summer season is a huge credit to him. This one hurt.

*****

4. Sharapova comes up short: It's easy to overlook, but Maria Sharapova had a solid middle part of the season. Between March and August, she reached the semifinals or better at Indian Wells, Miami and Rome (where she won the title), and made the semifinals of the French Open. At the start of July, Sharapova was back on the Wimbledon grass where she won her first Grand Slam title at 17 years old.

She looked well on her way to victory after strolling to the final without dropping a set, but then ran into the juggernaut that was Kvitova -- one of the few players who can match Sharapova for power. The final was a clinic of consistency and Sharapova was hardly ever in the match, with Kvitova cruising 6-3, 6-4. It was yet another disappointing setback for the three-time Grand Slam champ who always seemed right there in the mix but just couldn't close.

*****

3. Big woman on campus: Serena's Stanford campaign -- her third tournament in her comeback -- ignited what otherwise could have been a sleepy post-Wimbledon malaise in the tennis season. In her first hard-court tournament since the 2010 Australian Open, Williams dropped only one set (early in the tournament to Maria Kirilenko) to grab her first title since 2010 Wimbledon.

On her way, she took out Sharapova 6-1, 6-3; Wimbledon semifinalist Sabine Lisicki 6-1, 6-2; and the woman Serena lost to at the All England Club, Marion Bartoli, 7-5, 6-1. The matches weren't even as close as those lopsided score lines indicate. This was a week of dialed-in perfection from Serena, as she served dominantly, played with patience and power and, perhaps most impressively, moved with a level of quickness and agility we hadn't seen since well before her injury layoff. Thus began, if you discount her walkover to Samantha Stosur in Cincinnati, Serena's 19-match winning streak that would propel her to the U.S. Open final.

*****

2. The future is now: Well, 222 winners later, the future of the WTA was born. For all the attention lavished (in good ways and bad) on Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka as the new faces of women's tennis, leave it to Kvitova, the quiet, unassuming Czech, to pound her way through the Wimbledon draw, leaving opponents and commentators shaking their heads match after match.

I'm not sure I'll ever get sick of watching the video below -- a compilation of every Kvitova winner over the fortnight. The key is not so much watching Kvitova. Keep your eye on her opponents' reactions to these shots and what you see is the demoralizing effect of her power and shotmaking.

*****

1. Gluten-free grass: Djokovic's banner year rolled on in July. First he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals to make his first Wimbledon final appearance. Then, in their most lackluster clash of 2011, Djokovic denied Nadal the chance to win back-to-back Channel Slams, beating him for the first time in a major final 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 to clinch his first Wimbledon title. As if there were any doubt that Djokovic was indeed the best player in the world, he took over the No. 1 ranking the following Monday and never looked back.

Perhaps the only first he won't be repeating? Chomping on that Wimbledon grass (at the 14:20 mark). Yuck.

***** Got something we missed from July? 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.