Thursday April 12th, 2012

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. On Wednesday, we examined five of the biggest surprises of the 2012 season. Today, we look at 10 memorable performances.

1. Azarenka opens 26-0: The rest of this list features performances in individual matches or tournaments. But an exception has been made at the top to acknowledge Victoria Azarenka's overall play in compiling the fifth-longest season-opening winning streak in WTA history. For Azarenka to maintain her concentration and discipline over a three-month span that included her first Grand Slam title and three other tournament victories was no small feat. We're talking about a player who has struggled to stay calm during matches and whose body has let her down time and time again (Azarenka retired from four or more tournaments in each of the last two years). Now we're seeing what a healthy and focused Azarenka can do.

*****

2. Djokovic outlasts Nadal in major classic: Novak Djokovic showed us plenty about his competitive character in winning a record five-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal. The world No. 1 looked well out of it after Nadal won the fourth set in a tiebreaker and served at 4-2 in the fifth. But the man who had been deemed a delicate flower for much of his career didn't buckle. Djokovic hung in there and slowly regained control, thanks to some clutch serving, true grit and a key backhand miss from Nadal. When the Serb's 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory was complete, Djokovic and Nadal gave us an image that we'll always remember: After being pushed physically like never before, two of the world's greatest athletes could barely stand upright.

*****

3. Serena Williams rolls to Charleston title: Williams dropped only 15 games in five matches at the Family Circle Cup (her quarterfinal opponent, Sabine Lisicki, retired trailing 4-1 in the first set), the most dominant display by a tournament winner this year. And she got better and better as the week progressed: Williams lost two games in the semifinals (against No. 5 Samantha Stosur) and one in the final (against No. 26 Lucie Safarova), and her winner-error differential in those two matches was plus-33. The scary thing is, by her standards, she didn't have that strong of a week serving.

*****

4. Roddick turns back time to stun Federer: It wasn't just the fact that Andy Roddick defeated Roger Federer for only the third time in 24 meetings; it was the manner in which he did it in the third round of the Sony Ericsson Open, playing as aggressively as ever against the Swiss. Federer was riding a 16-match winning streak and hadn't lost to a player ranked outside the top 20 in 77 matches. Meanwhile, Roddick had been slowed by injury for most of 2012, his ranking was down to an 11-year low No. 34 and he hadn't beaten a player in the top 50 all year. But Roddick served well in the first and third sets and ripped forehand after forehand in a 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-4 victory, reminding us that the 29-year-old American should not be counted out.

*****

5. Isner shocks Federer at Davis Cup: This early-February match was the one that started the John Isner buzz, which has only grown after the 26-year-old American upset Djokovic at Indian Wells and beat No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 13 Gilles Simon on clay in France during last week's Davis Cup quarterfinals. The 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory against Federer not only proved Isner's talent and skill but also his mettle. To stand up to Federer on clay in a Davis Cup tie in Switzerland? I tip my backward baseball cap, Big John. (And while we're tipping caps: Credit to the U.S. Davis Cup team for winning at Switzerland and France to make the semifinals for the first time since 2008. Isner had help from Mardy Fish and Bob and Mike Bryan.)

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6. Venus Williams returns and drops a bagel on Kvitova: Playing her first tournament since last August, Venus already had shown that her game was sound by routing Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-0, 6-0 in the first round of the Sony Ericsson Open. But it was her second-round triumph that left jaws on the floor. In a match no one who wasn't at Crandon Park could watch, Williams rebounded from losing the second set to oust reigning Wimbledon champion and No. 3 Petra Kvitova 6-4, 4-6, 6-0. That's some incredible competitive fire.

7. Sharapova fights past Kvitova: Speaking of competitive fire, Maria Sharapova's 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, win over Kvitova in the Australian Open semifinals was pure guts. Kvitova looked to be the stronger of the two in the third set, but Sharapova recovered from an early break and then repeatedly escaped when trailing on her serve. (For the match, Kvitova converted only 3-of-14 break points.) Kvitova, normally unflappable, got visibly frustrated as opportunities slipped away. Finally, serving at 4-5, Kvitova double-faulted and added three straight unforced errors to lose the match. Sharapova may not have played the better tennis on the day, but she managed to grind it out.

*****

8. Hewitt picks apart Raonic: In the battle of youth vs. experience, power vs. counterpunching, Lleyton Hewitt gave the home crowd something to cheer about in his 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (5), 3-6 win over Milos Raonic in the third round of the Australian Open. Raonic had won the Chennai title a few weeks earlier without getting broken once in four matches, but Hewitt did so three times and bullied him around Rod Laver Arena. In the face of Hewitt's dogged defense, Roanic looked small. He couldn't hit his way through Hewitt and started second-guessing everything. Hewitt, always the competitor and ever the savvy veteran, tightened the screws on his 21-year-old opponent and won with a scoreline that was a lot closer than it felt at the time.

9. Tomic and Dolgopolov put on a slicing clinic: What happens when you put Weird vs. Weird? You get something even weirder. I have rarely seen a press room as entertained during a match as the one in Melbourne was when Bernard Tomic and Alexandr Dolgopolov, two youngsters with unusual games, played in the third round of the Australian Open. There was slicing and dicing. There was no pace, and then incredible pace. There were shots you probably had never seen before and shots you definitely had never seen before. That Tomic prevailed 6-4, 6-7 (0), 6-7 (6), 6-2, 3-6 was almost an afterthought. This was the oddest match I've seen in years. Entertainment at its finest.

*****

10. Murray improves ... and loses: As if the Andy Murray mythology needed yet another sigh-inducing benchmark, leave it to him to play the best match of his career and still lose. In what would have been the match of the Australian Open if not for what happened in the final, Djokovic survived fatigue and a fifth-set surge from Murray to win 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5 in the semifinals. But even with Djokovic's heroics, Murray's improvement was the story. After fighting hard to take an 88-minute third set, Murray hit a wall. He was sluggish for most of the next two sets and found himself down 2-5 in the fifth. But the Scot broke Djokovic with the Serb serving for the match at 5-3, then had three chances to break Djokovic at 5-5. Djokovic saved all three, including one with a screaming forehand down the line to end a 29-shot rally (see the point at the 11:45 mark here). Djokovic went on to hold and break Murray in the next game to win. Said Murray: “Sometimes you come off the court and you’ve played really badly, you haven’t quite been there mentally, and then you’re really disappointed with yourself because you’ve let yourself down. I don’t feel like I’ve let myself down today."

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