Wednesday April 11th, 2012

John Isner has wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic this year. (Harry How/Getty Images)

With the first quarter of the year finished and the tours moving to Europe, it's time to take stock of the last three months. Today we look at some of the biggest surprises of the 2012 season.

1. John Isner crashes the party: In a mere two months or so, the 6-foot-9 Isner has gone from being a freak of nature to a force to be reckoned with. Getting a big one-off win was never going to be a surprise for Isner, but look at his string of quality victories this year: a dramatic five-setter over David Nalbandian at the Australian Open; a four-setter over Roger Federer on clay in a Davis Cup match in Switzerland, sparking the Americans' first-round sweep; a 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5) win against Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells, one of only two losses for the world No. 1 this year; and last weekend's impressive showing in Monte Carlo, where he dropped a combined one set in best-of-five victories against France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon, leading the United States into the Davis Cup semifinals for the first time since 2008.

Isner (17-6 this season) has climbed from No. 18 at the start of the year to a career-high 10th, one spot behind top American Mardy Fish. The 26-year-old has notched his first career victories against Federer and Djokovic, reached his first Masters 1000 final (at Indian Wells) and shown an ability to win big matches in pressure-packed situations.

"If I can keep this level up, I am going to be very hard to beat," Isner said after his two singles victories against France.

Whether that will be the case at the next two majors will be interesting to watch. Isner is 2-3 in three career appearances at both the French Open and Wimbledon.

2. Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska take control: Order was bound to be restored on the unpredictable WTA Tour at some point, but did anyone think these two good friends turned mortal enemies (hyperbole is fun!) would be the ones to do it, and this quickly? They've scooped up the five biggest titles of the year, with Azarenka taking the Australian Open, Doha and Indian Wells (beating Radwanska at each tournament) en route to a season-opening 26-match winning streak and ascension to the No. 1 ranking; and Radwanska winning Dubai and Miami on her way to a career-high No. 4 and a 26-4 start in which all of her losses have been to Azarenka. We knew both women were good, but did we think they were this good?

3. Venus returns. And she's relevant: It was hard to know if we'd even see Williams on the court in 2012 after she announced last August that she had the autoimmune disease Sjogren's Syndrome. That she was able to return in Miami in March, more than six months after her last match, was a triumph in and of itself. But to see her advance to the quarterfinals, beating Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic among her four victories, and then to give Samantha Stosur a run for her money a week later in the quarterfinals on the green clay in Charleston, S.C., was a complete shock.

In only two tournaments, Venus has brought her ranking up from No. 134 to No. 71, and she looks well on her way to qualifying for the Olympics in July. Perhaps most encouraging has been how she's approached her comeback, both on and off the court. Williams has been a delight during her press conferences, talking openly about how she's managing her illness and the struggles she's endured just to get back on the court, and she's playing even more aggressively than she did before her diagnosis. We'll see if her body is able to withstand the grind of a two-week Grand Slam event, but for now she's back in the conversation and the women's game is better for it.

4. Petra Kvitova is not No. 1: It feels like only yesterday that Kvitova was demolishing the competition at the WTA Championships in Istanbul to punctuate her Player of the Year campaign. With that tournament victory, Kvitova finished 2011 within 115 points of then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. Kvitova may not have been buying the hype -- she deflected questions about reaching the top spot and spoke about her emphasis on improvement -- but the rest of us were already picking out the wallpaper and drapes for her pending move into the WTA penthouse.

Skip ahead a few months. I don't know about you, but I feel like I've barely seen Kvitova play this year. She went 4-0 at the Hopman Cup exhibition and made the Sydney semifinals, then worked her way through the draw at the Australian Open before falling to Maria Sharapova in a three-set semifinal. Since then, though, Kvitova has dealt with injury and illness and appeared in only two WTA tournaments, losing to Christina McHale in her second match at Indian Wells and getting bageled by Venus Williams in the third set of her opening match in Miami. Now, instead of setting the pace on tour, Kvitova is merely looking to build some momentum ahead of the French Open. 5. Roger Federer nearly reels in Rafael Nadal: Nadal hasn't been outside the top two since May 2010, but his longtime rival threatened that streak by quietly sneaking up on him. Federer's charge toward the No. 2 ranking started last fall, when, after a 10-month title drought, he won three straight indoor tournaments, including the ATP World Tour Finals. But his push really picked up steam this year with another run of three consecutive titles, the last at Indian Wells, where he closed the gap on Nadal enough that Federer suddenly had a chance to overtake the Spaniard the following week in Miami and return to the top two for the first time since March 2011. But Andy Roddick knocked out Federer in the third round, leaving Nadal with a 900-point lead entering the clay season.

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