Year-End Report Card: High marks for headline men; mixed grades for WTA
BTB begins our review of 2012 with the year-end Report Card. This was a memorable year in tennis, from Roger Federer's record-breaking ascent to No. 1 to Serena Williams' reign over the WTA to Rafael Nadal's bad knees to Petra Kvitova's fragile state.
Novak Djokovic: A. How exactly would Djokovic follow up arguably the best season in the Open Era? By outlasting Nadal in a six-hour Australian Open final, winning six titles overall, going 75-12 and finishing No. 1 for the second year in a row. Djokovic continued his growth as a player, responding to a disappointing summer -- failing to medal at the Olympics was rough -- to close the year strongly. The 25-year-old Serb could have gone very negative after the London Games, but he dusted himself off and collected four of his six titles in the second half, winning Toronto, Beijing, Shanghai and the World Tour Finals.
Roger Federer: A. Age ain't nothin' but a number for Federer, who continued to build on the momentum gained last fall -- when he won Basel, Paris and the World Tour Finals to finish the season -- and captured his seventh Wimbledon crown to earn the No. 1 ranking for a record-breaking 287th week. The latter was the most astonishing accomplishment of the year for Federer. I have no doubt he has a few more Slams in him, but getting back to No. 1 showed that the now 31-year-old was still capable of consistency over a 365-day span.
Andy Murray: A+. You couldn't write it up any better for Murray. OK, maybe winning Wimbledon would have been preferable to his teary concession speech, but he'll always have another chance to win his home-soil Slam. As it is, Murray's ability to bounce back after that tough loss to win Olympic gold on that same court a few weeks later remains my favorite memory of 2012. He did it the hard way, beating Djokovic and Federer, and that mojo carried him though the summer. By the time he finally won his first Slam by beating Djokovic in five sets at the U.S. Open, the inevitable had finally arrived.
Victoria Azarenka: A. The scary thing about Azarenka's tremendous year is that she played well within herself. Her 26-match winning streak to start the year wasn't a player going on a hot run. That's simply what she's capable of when she plays her style of attacking counterpunching. As long as she's focused and motivated, it takes something special to beat her. To wit: Seven of her 10 losses came to either Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova. She lost only one match to a player ranked outside the Top 10, and that was to Dominika Cibulkova at the French Open, her worst surface.
Serena Williams: A+. Serena says she still ranks her 2002 season as her best. That year she went 56-5 with eight titles, including three majors. Her numbers this year aren't too shabby. She went 58-4 with two Slams, an Olympic gold medal and seven titles. That's an incredible haul when you consider the bulk of it was accomplished during the second half of the season. After her shocking first-round exit to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros, Williams lost one match in six tournaments the rest of the year. It was an incredible turnaround from a woman already known for defying the odds.
Maria Sharapova: B+. Somewhere along the way, Sugarpov -- I mean, Sharapova -- shed her "cow on ice" moniker and learned how to skate on red clay. The result? The Russian completed the career Grand Slam by romping to the French Open title, dropping only one set over the fortnight. She was remarkably consistent throughout the year, making the quarterfinals or better at every tournament save Wimbledon, where she lost to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round. The problem for Sharapova was her performance in finals. She made nine finals this year and lost seven of them, all to Williams, Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska.
Rafael Nadal: Incomplete. A cop-out grade? Maybe. But how do you rate a guy who missed half the year? Nadal looked well on his way to challenging Djokovic for the No. 1 spot after posting a 23-1 mark on clay and winning his record-breaking seventh French Open title. Then came the shocking loss to Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon. He took the rest of the season off to rest and rehabilitate his knees.
David Ferrer: A. The 30-year-old Spaniard won a tour-leading seven titles, including his first Masters 1000 shield, and finished No. 5 for the second consecutive year. He also went 6-0 in Davis Cup singles for runner-up Spain.
Tomas Berdych: A-. One half of the two-man crew that took the Czechs to their first Davis Cup title as an independent nation and the guy who knocked out Federer at the U.S. Open quarterfinals, Berdych has teed things up nicely for 2013. He still struggles with consistency -- his mid-summer lull, where he went 3-5 and suffered three straight losses on grass, almost derailed his season -- but Berdych has become a more reliable player.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: D. The Frenchman played the season without a dedicated coach, and it showed. There wasn't a whole lot of great tennis coming off Tsonga's racket this year, when his brand of dynamic, athletic play fell victim to poor preparation and even poorer decision-making. That's not to say he didn't have his chances. Tsonga had four match points against Djokovic in the French Open quarterfinals and lost 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-1, and he made the Wimbledon semifinals, where he lost to Murray. Here's hoping new coach Roger Rasheed can help Tsonga get the hunger back.
Milos Raonic: B+. The 21-year-old began the year ranked outside the top 30, and he'll finish at No. 13 as the highest-ranked North American male. Aside from two good wins over Murray, it was Raonic's ability to consistently push Federer that impressed. In their three matches this year, Raonic took Federer the distance only to get nipped in the end each time. Federer beat him in Indian Wells 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4; in Madrid 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4); and in Halle 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (3).
John Isner: B-. Isner experienced lots of highs and lots of lows. Thanks to reaching his first ATP Masters 1000 final, at Indian Wells, Isner made his top 10 debut and took over the torch as the No. 1 American. But as expectations swelled in the spring -- beating Federer on clay and Djokovic on hard courts will do that -- Isner buckled and had a disastrous clay and grass season. His penchant for getting stuck in marathon matches -- all four of his Slam losses went the full five sets -- took a toll. After winning Winston-Salem for his second title of the year, Isner disappeared, going 4-6 for the rest of the year.
Andy Roddick: A. Roddick abruptly announced his retirement on his 30th birthday and proceeded to play his final U.S. Open like a man reborn. He didn't give fans much time to say goodbye, but in those three post-announcement matches against Bernard Tomic, Fabio Fognini and Juan Martin del Potro, Roddick's final New York run was celebratory, buoyant and emotional.
Juan Martin del Potro: B+. Del Potro's play over the last three months made me rue the end of the season. The quiet giant was just that through the first half -- quiet -- before a two-sets-to-love lead over Federer in the French Open quarterfinals awoke the beast. The Argentine eventually ran out of gas and lost the match but said it reminded him that he could beat the top guys again. Sure enough, he came close to beating Federer at the Olympics a few weeks later (losing 19-17 in the third) but picked up a bronze medal by beating Djokovic in straight sets. Having fallen to Federer six straight times this season, Del Potro ended the year with two wins over the Swiss great. The belief is back, and that bodes well for his 2013 campaign.
Asian Tennis: B+. Kei Nishikori and Li Na continued to lead the Asian pack. Nishikori became the first Japanese man to win the Tokyo Open, and Li made the semifinals of Beijing. Meanwhile, Taiwan enjoyed great success with the rise of Hsieh Su-Wei, who began the year outside the top 170 and finished at a career-high No. 25. More good results came from Chang Kai-Chen (who defeated Laura Robson and Sam Stosur to make the Osaka final) and Chan Yung-Jan, who advanced to the semifinals of Carlsbad as a qualifier.
Tommy Haas: A. Roland Garros didn't bother giving a main-draw wild card to the popular German, so Haas packed a lunch and did it the hard way. Ranked outside the top 100, he qualified and then won a few more matches, making the third round. A couple of weeks later he upended Federer in the final of Halle and continued his form through the summer, reaching back-to-back finals in Hamburg and Washington, D.C. Tremendous effort from the 34-year-old.
Caroline Wozniacki: D. From No. 1 to barely inside the top 10, this was quite the tumble for Wozniacki, who spent most of the year looking absolutely miserable on the court. There was simply no clarity within the Dane's camp as to how she should play or how her game should develop, and in the end it was Wozniacki and her father, Piotr, against the world. She picked up some momentum to end the year, but getting back to No. 1 is going to be a tough task.
Varvara Lepchenko: B+. Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin. What do they all have in common? None is the No. 2 American behind Serena. That would be Lepchenko, who transformed her career when she made the quarterfinals in Madrid as a qualifier and followed with a fourth-round appearance at Roland Garros, where she beat Francesca Schiavone. Those results earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. I'll be curious to see if she can build on her success next year.
Sara Errani: A. Along with a prolific doubles season with Roberta Vinci, Errani won four of her six career singles titles this year and advanced to the French Open final and U.S. Open semifinals. After beginning the year ranked No. 45, Errani climbed all the way to sixth with the help of a racket change and improved fitness.
Sam Querrey: B. It was a quiet but productive year for Querrey, who finished with one top-10 win. His victory over Djokovic at the Paris Masters was the Serb's worst loss of the season, and it helped propel Querrey to No. 22, just a few spots behind Isner. With little to defend early next year, it's entirely possible Querrey could go into the clay season as the top-ranked American.
Bob and Mike Bryan: B+. The year started with Bob racing to catch a flight home after they lost in the Australian Open final to be there for the birth of his Twitter celebrity baby, Micaela, and it ended with Mike tying the knot this weekend. In between those major life events, there was an Olympic gold medal, a U.S. Open title and yet another year at No. 1.
Angelique Kerber: A. Kerber won more matches in 2012 than she had in her previous six seasons combined and racked up career milestones on a weekly basis. While the rest of the surging Germans fell away -- Andrea Petkovic because of injury and Lisicki and Julia Goerges because of inconsistency -- Kerber held steady, finishing the year at No. 5.
Petra Kvitova: D. Kvitova had a year that made you start wondering if she would be the latest in a string of WTA one-Slam wonders. I still buy into her talent, and I'm not ready to sell any stock just yet, but her fragile body let her down week after week, whether due to illness or injury. She's still the most exciting young player for my money, and even with her bad year, she still finished in the top 10 with two titles and two Slam semifinals.
Ana Ivanovic: B-. Ivanovic continued her slow but steady comeback under coach Nigel Sears, solidifying her spot in the top 20 and making a major quarterfinal for the first time since she won Roland Garros in 2008. But she hasn't shown much to prove that she'll be anything more than a top-20 staple. No notably big wins to speak of and no stretch of sustained consistency, either. But progress is progress, and Sears has earned her trust.
Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko: B+. As a doubles team and in their respective singles careers, 2012 was a career year for the Russians, who won Olympic bronze and the WTA Championships as a team. In singles, Petrova, a former world No. 4, picked up the biggest titles of her career, winning Tokyo and the Tournament of Champions in Sofia. Kirilenko's solid year included an upset of Kvitova at the Olympics, which put her into medal contention.
Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber: C+. The year started out so well, as the pair went on a 17-match winning streak after the Australian Open to snag four straight titles. The pair topped the rankings together, and everything was bliss. But the wheels slowly came off during the clay season, and the team never recovered. The disappointment from failing to medal at the Olympics seemed to weigh heavy on the partnership through the summer. They finished the year with one more title, in New Haven, and agreed to go their separate ways after the season.
Team GB: B+. Between Murray's Olympic-U.S. Open double and Robson's emphatic breakthrough at the U.S. Open, where she sent Kim Clijsters into retirement and knocked out a surging Li to make the fourth round, it was a banner year for British tennis. It looks like Robson and Heather Watson are ready to take over the reins from their British veterans, which makes the prospect of 2013 exciting.
Venus Williams: A. I still think Venus is the most underrated WTA story this year. After being ranked outside the top 100 when she started her comeback in Miami, Venus worked through the clay season to get her ranking up to qualify for the Olympics. She then won her first title in two years, in Luxembourg, at the end of the season to earn a seed at the Australian Open. She accomplished all of that while learning how to play with and manage her autoimmune disease. It was an incredible effort, a daily display of guts and will power. Serena may have grabbed the trophies, but Venus had our hearts this year.
Olympic Tennis: B. Thanks to the event being held at the All England Club, this iteration of Olympic tennis was automatically infused with more meaning and history than past events. The crowds were vocal, rowdy and partisan (read: not your typical Wimbledon crowd), and the players seemed to enjoy it. But it was hard to get past the idea that no matter how much the players talk about the Olympics and the desire to represent their countries, Olympic tennis just feels ... small. It's so under the radar I caught myself wondering, What's the point?
Tennis Channel: B+. It got a big win in its fight against Comcast, which should get the network into more homes once the dust settles. Tennis Channel also continued to up its game with entertaining original programming -- who doesn't love a good Tennisography? -- and its Slam coverage was on the money. ESPN: B-. Darren Cahill continues to be the best tennis analyst out there, and count me in the camp who digs Brad Gilbert's everyman quality. But the amount of over-the-top fawning when top players come to the interview desk can be nauseating.