November 08, 2012

The 2012 WTA season is in the books. It was an eventful year, with Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams restoring some order to a recently topsy-turvy tour. We asked's tennis analysts to weigh in on the year that was.

Will the "Big Three" maintain dominance atop the WTA→

S.L. Price: Yes, and thank you, tennis gods. Women's tennis floundered in the shadow of the wondrous men's competition of the last decade, and it didn't do itself any favors with its parade of oddly distracted champions and No. 1s. This year, for the first time since the Hingis/Davenport/Williams smackdowns back at century's end, we had three top-flight talents baring their teeth and having at each other. Just as important, all three showed growth: Sharapova mastering the clay in Paris; Williams showing a desire, at last, to wring the most out of her talent as the end draws near; Azarenka finally embracing -- and enjoying -- the fame and responsibility of being a top player in New York. That Williams dominated the other two is almost -- ALMOST -- beside the point: Azarenka, especially, seems primed and eager to do the work necessary to push her hard. There's a palpable want atop the women's game again, and I see it carrying on for at least one more year. Please.

[PHOTOS: Every WTA champion of 2012 season]

Jon Wertheim: Never mind "dominance" ... let's define "atop." But in short: yes. Given her scheduling, Williams never makes it easy on herself in terms of gaining the No.1 ranking. If she gets back to No.1, it will be a real testament to her level of play, since she plays relatively few tournaments. But as was the case a full decade ago, if she is able and willing, she is the best in the business. Azarenka and Sharapova need to beat Williams -- something neither did in eight tries in 2012 -- in order to truly legitimize themselves, but they are the other members of the top three. If you could meld a player with the strategy and consistency of Aga Radwanska, the lefty power of Petra Kvitova and the athleticism of Sam Stosur, it would be something. Unfortunately, the rest of the WTA has a weakness (sometimes it's power, sometimes it's mental, sometimes it's a transition game) that the Big Three can exploit.

Bruce Jenkins: I can't see anyone turning that Big Three into Four. There's nobody out there to match Williams' talent, Sharapova's toughness or Azarenka's consistency. Which isn't such a bad thing. The storylines involving those three women will be sufficiently compelling to hold the nation's attention, assuming a motivated Williams keeps playing the top events.

Courtney Nguyen: Yes. Ish. Looking back on the year, I don't think Sharapova or Williams played outside of herself to get to the top of the rankings. As long as they stay healthy, there's no reason to think they can't replicate that success (or something close to it) next year. I would be shocked if Sharapova fell out of the top five next year. As for Williams, we all know the story. She's the best in the game if she's fit and motivated, and she's clearly fired up to take over the No. 1 spot from Azarenka in Australia. The question mark is Azarenka. It's one thing to get to No. 1 and be on the rise, but how will she react in a year when she'll be defending the ranking and the titles (and the huge chunk of points) for the first time in her career→ She may not remain in the No. 1 spot, but she's a top-

five player for the long haul and a title contender on all hard courts. It would take a severe crisis of confidence for her to tumble.

Bryan Armen Graham: While I can't see Azarenka's replicating her early-season success when she opened with 26 straight victories, including titles at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, it's clear she's achieved a level of consistency that should make her a top-three mainstay for the foreseeable future. Same for a recommitted Williams (who should overtake Vika for a sixth stint at No. 1) and matured Sharapova. I don't see any of the next tier -- Radwanska, Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani or Kvitova -- breaking through in 2013.

Who was the biggest surprise→

Price: Serena's midseason turnaround was, if you'd never heard of her before, stunning, and Sharapova's win in Paris is probably the biggest single tennis shocker. But Azarenka's steadiness and, more to the point, maturation was the biggest revelation to me. Some players never understand that being a star involves much more than just tennis, and they end up fighting all the ancillary elements -- the media, the interaction with fans, the necessary sell -- harder than any opponent. A weird heaviness creeps into their play; they know that winning will bring only more demands. Azarenka struck me that way at the beginning of the year, and by the end it was clear that something or someone had gotten to her. I never saw that coming.

Wertheim: A tip of the cap to Kerber who came to the 2011 U.S. Open ranked No. 92 and has been a consistent winner ever since. (The German is up to No. 5 after winning 60 matches and two titles this year.) With little to predict it, Nadia Petrova had a fine 2012. There were nice risers such as Sara Errani and Varvara Lepchenko, the highest-ranked American after Serena, at No. 21. But Williams has to be the biggest surprise. She flames out in Australia. She flames out at the French Open, losing to a player outside the top 100 (Virginie Razzano). She looks as good as ever winning Wimbledon, an Olympic singles gold, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. Another chapter is one of the sport's most compelling narratives. Ever.

Jenkins: Errani. At a time when Francesca Schiavone went into decline, Errani became the face of Italian women's tennis and had a tremendous year, especially impressive because her slight build (just 5-foot-4) would seem to be such a handicap in the world of Big Babe Tennis. She won three titles during the clay-court season. She had a huge French Open, reaching the final and winning the doubles with Roberta Vinci. With her fearless approach and textbook footwork, she fought hard all year to qualify for the year-end championships in Istanbul, where she defeated Stosur and nearly beat Radwanska in a tough three-setter. In general, she's a pleasure to watch.

Nguyen: Errani's surge into the top 10 -- she made her first Grand Slam final at the French Open and backed it up later in the year with a semifinal run at the U.S. Open -- was shocking. But no performance wowed me as much as Kerber's. She put together a consistent season and proved week in and week out that she wasn't a flash in the pan. I confess that I thought her 2011 U.S. Open semifinal appearance was a fluke. Other than Radwanska in the second round, she didn't have to beat anyone in the top 25 to get there. I'm glad she proved me wrong. A counterpuncher with the capacity for offense, the German won more main-draw matches this year (60) than she did in her previous six years on tour combined (57), and she reached the Wimbledon semifinals and French Open quarterfinals. Most important, she was dangerous. Kerber entered the year 0-11 against top-10 players, but she finished 2012 with eight top 10 scalps, including victories against Williams, Sharapova and Kvitova. I thought fatigue would get to her as year progressed, but for the most part it didn't. I look forward to seeing if she can put on a similarly impressive display next year.

Graham: The emergence of Errani and Kerber as top-tier staples may have been unforeseen, but not flabbergasting in a trade where the only constant is flux and top-10 players come and go. To me, it's Serena's second-half surge in what must be considered at least theoretically the winter of her career. Whispers of her decline intensified after a slow start to 2012 culminated with an ignominious first-round ouster at Roland Garros, her first opening-round loss in 47 career Grand Slam appearances. Williams famously trashed her entire French Open wardrobe, and Father Time's undefeated record looked as unassailable as ever. Yet she returned at Wimbledon less than a month later and became the first woman past 30 to win a major since Martina Navratilova 22 years ago; added gold medals in singles and doubles at the London Olympics; won 16 of the last 22 points to rally past Azarenka in the most dramatic women's U.S. Open final in recent memory; and capped the season with a commanding title run at the WT Championships. You can say, "Well, it's Serena," but to call it anything less than a major surprise cheapens her legend, which, incredibly, remains a work in progress.\n

Biggest disappointment→

Price: Caroline Wozniacki's tailspin. I suspect that Caroline never got that there was a widespread want behind all the questions about her shoring up her No. 1 ranking with a Slam title: She's such an appealing figure, funny and smart and playful off the court, that most fans -- and, I suspect, media types -- were pulling for her to consolidate her place and provide stability at the top. Somehow grappling with that (let's call it, a la Robert Ludlum, The Kournikova Distraction) -- and not adding refinements to her one-dimensional game -- became the defining theme in her development. She took her eye off the ball. I figured her to be more determined. Seems pretty happy with Rory, though.

Wertheim: Wozniacki started the year ranked No. 1. She not only lost early and often but also failed to make the WTA year-end championships, finishing the season at a modest No. 10. Had you predicted that 2012 would have been a breakthrough year for Sabine Lisicki, a hard-hitting German, you might have triggered nods of assent. She started the year ranked No. 15 and ended at No. 37, having won one match (in six events) since the Olympics.

Jenkins: Probably a tie between Kvitova and Lisicki. Many others could qualify, notably Wozniacki and Li Na, but I think we should grow accustomed to their pratfalls. Kvitova has that exceptional talent, and even a second straight Fed Cup title couldn't salvage a year defined by poor health and frustrating losses. As for Lisicki, with that dynamite serve and occasionally brilliant track record, it's depressing to see her fall.

Nguyen: It's tempting to pick Kvitova. All you have to do is look to our WTA Roundtable from last year, when the panel unanimously saw her dominating in 2012. That obviously didn't happen, as the fragile Czech -- who was a mere 115 points out of the No. 1 ranking at the start of the year -- came into the season behind in her fitness because of an offseason injury and struggled throughout. But can you really say a woman who made two Slam semifinals (Australian Open and Roland Garros) and one quarterfinal (loss to Serena at Wimbledon) and collected two titles is a shocking disappointment→ I can't. So I'm going with Wozniacki. Thanks to a late-season push, she finished the season ranked right at No. 10. Wozniacki built her career on not getting beaten by players outside the top 10 and picking up titles in bunches. But this year 14 of her 23 tournaments ended at the hands of a player ranked outside the top 10 -- Irina Camelia-Begu, anyone→ -- and she didn't win a title until September. Woz is a better player than that.

Graham: The harsh degree of Wozniacki's downward trajectory came as a shock even in an era of dubious No. 1s and paper champions. The player known affectionately as Sunshine was Partly Cloudy With A Chance Of Rain for what seemed like the entirety of the season.

What under-the-radar story caught your attention→

Price: Sharapova's mental fragility. There's long been an idea in tennis circles -- and my brain -- that she's one of the few players who can match Williams in focus and concentration. We've all heard it: The steely ice queen, Hitchcock blond, imperious, etc. I can't say the breakup of her engagement had anything to do with it, but this year Sharapova struck me as anything but impregnable. The rest of the field→ She crushes them. But Sharapova hasn't taken a set off Williams in nearly five years and barely showed up in losing the Olympic final to her, 6-0, 6-1. Azarenka, meanwhile, dominated her on her beloved hard court all year, crushed her 6-3, 6-0 in the Australian Open final and, when the two finally put together a three-set epic in New York, proved herself stronger again. Sharapova's demeanor -- all screeches, stares and blank-faced composure -- used to be the signs of a superior competitive mind. Now it comes off more as a mask.

Wertheim: Alexandra Stevenson reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1999 and appeared poised for stardom, in part because of her tennis and in part because of her parentage. She never replicated that success, falling out of the top 50, then 100, then 500. She never quit playing, though, and in 2012, at age 31, she competed in 23 low-level events, from Yakima to Osaka.

Jenkins: The rise of British women's tennis. It's WAY above the radar in England, but a mere blip on the screen for the American audience. Heather Watson and Laura Robson are absolutely for real, each having a shot to be a top-20 player. In the United Kingdom, that's startling news.

Nguyen: The WTA ended its partnership with Eurosport this year, opting for a more decentralized approach rather than having one entity broadcast to multiple countries. This is a huge blow. While the tour is clearly investing in online streaming and expanding its television coverage, it now has to shop the rights from country to country, running the risk of having some decline. That means outside of the Slams, many European fans might not be able to see a women's match on television. Yes, the diehards will find a way to watch the matches they want online. But there's a lot to be said about just clicking on your television, stumbling onto a women's match and getting sucked into it. That happened with Eurosport. The question is whether the WTA will be able to find the broadcast partners for it to happen again.

Graham: The continued emergence of Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens, who combined to go 52-42 and finish in the year-end top 40, has assuaged the ongoing hand-wringing regarding the future of American women's tennis once Venus and Serena retire. But 16-year-old Taylor Townsend and 17-year-old Samantha Crawford, whose respective Australian Open and U.S. Open girls' singles titles came with far less fanfare, offer further reason for optimism on the domestic front.

Bold prediction for the 2013 season→

Price: Venus Williams, who hasn't won a major in five years and who turns 33 in June, will win the Wimbledon singles title.

Wertheim: Both Venus and Serena will still be playing. Their combined age will be 65, but this is the legacy of their sensible scheduling throughout their careers. They can still compete at a high level (and still make endorsement income) well into their 30s. The sport is better for this. And other players would do well to consider this career management.

Jenkins: Two players at the opposite end of the spectrum -- aging Venus and up-and-coming Stephens -- will reach the semifinals of a major. Venus has taught us never to underestimate her, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, and I just like the way Stephens goes about her life, on and off the court.

Nguyen: I have a few: Serena will complete the Serena Golden Slam by winning the Australian Open and French Open. ... Schiavone will retire at Roland Garros. ... The Brits will have a player inside the top 20. ... Li will win another Slam. ... The WTA will continue to struggle to find a title sponsor. ... Stosur, ranked ninth, will drop out of the top 20.

Graham: Stephens will make the semifinals of a Grand Slam at least once, move into the top 20 and surpass 25,000 followers on Twitter.

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