The competition for this award raged fiercely for most of the season between the two women who started it atop the rankings. In the end, we favored the woman who started the year on a significant momentum surge over the woman whose decline merely deepened from its beginnings in 2011.
Poised to become the youngest elite contender in the WTA, Kvitova never quite found her footing in a 2012 marred by inconsistency, underachievement, and a surprising lack of confidence in key matches.
After a spectacular week at the year-end championships positioned her within range of the #1 ranking, Kvitova needed just a finals appearance at her first tournament of the season to clinch the top spot. Expectations soared high for the first woman of her generation to win a major, having succeeded sooner than more familiar figures like Wozniacki and Azarenka. Midway through her semifinal against Li in Sydney, all had unfolded according to plan. Much as she had when at her dominant best in 2011, Kvitova throttled an elite opponent with lethal first strikes and marched within a service break of a commanding victory—only to see the match suddenly slip away. While that disappointment seemed inconsequential at the time, it proved an omen in retrospect for a season filled with narrowly missed opportunities and very few rays of good fortune.
Continuing the theme at the Australian Open, where she again could have captured the #1 ranking, Kvitova maneuvered through a generally accommodating draw to a semifinal against Sharapova. Since she had defeated the Russian comfortably to secure her breakthrough Wimbledon title, one fancied her chances to reach a final against another rival who recently had struggled against her in Azarenka. Despite Sharapova’s strong first set, Kvitova wrested away the momentum in the second set and stood on the verge of justifying those anticipations. Again and again, she sank her teeth into her opponent’s service games but never could secure the crucial break as her frustration mounted. Suddenly forced to hold serve to stay alive, she succumbed to her frustration in playing her worst service game of the tournament. Had a tiny handful of points tilted in her direction, Kvitova probably would have won not only the match but her second major title and the year-end #1 ranking. (The seasons of Azarenka and Sharapova also might have followed a starkly different trajectory.)
Hampered by injury and illness for much of the spring, the Czech lost much of the confidence necessary to execute her high-risk game with the timing that it requires. Struggling to string together victories, she fell again to Sharapova in a Stuttgart semifinal that seemed haunted by the memories of their Melbourne encounter in her failure to convert more than one of eleven break points. Her serve dulled in Rome by a shoulder injury, Kvitova had lost all of her momentum from 2011 before she limped into Roland Garros. Recalling her fortnight at the Australian Open, the tournament again presented her with a comfortable path to the semifinals that featured no opponent in the top 30. Less impressive than at the season’s first major, she still stumbled through unnecessarily arduous encounters against these challengers well below her level. All the same, Kvitova essentially stood within a victory of reversing her entire season when she faced Sharapova again in a semifinal. Had she won that match, she surely would have overpowered first-time major finalist Sara Errani on the climactic Saturday. But the Czech lost much more routinely to Sharapova than she had in Australia, revealing the degree to appearance or which her self-belief had wavered during her lengthening drought. Remarkably, the player whom many had labeled the future of the WTA entered the grass season without a single finals appearance or victory over a top-10 opponent.
Predictably unable to defend her Wimbledon crown, Kvitova still acquitted herself well in a situation where many first-time major champions had failed miserably in recent years. She suffered the misfortune of drawing eventual champion Serena in the quarterfinals, just when the latter elevated her form to the sublime level that would define her second half. Once again, one wondered how far Kvitova could have advanced had she somehow survived that match, for Kerber, Radwanska, and Azarenka filled the rest of the semifinal brackets. Or perhaps one should not have wondered, for she spent much of this season stumbling against opponents who would not have detained her for long in 2011, no longer an accurate barometer to project her fortunes. A contributor to her nation’s second straight Fed Cup title, the Czech succumbed to Kirilenko in the Olympics at the threshold of the medal rounds in a defeat especially deflating for this proud patriot.
Then rose a fleeting flicker of hope at the most unlikely moment for a player notoriously ineffective in North America. A season in which the opposite of the expected happened repeatedly to Kvitova reached its apex during the US Open Series, where she won her only titles of 2012. At the Rogers Cup, she recorded her first victories over top-10 opponents as well as her first title of the year in a satisfying slice of revenge against Li Na. Able to outlast both the Chinese star and Wozniacki in tortuous three-setters, Kvitova finally found confidence on key points and regained some of the patience that had disintegrated under the weight of accumulating frustrations. Just as importantly, she consolidated this encouraging result with strong efforts in Cincinnati and New Haven that set the stage for New York. Never had she distinguished herself there, but one reasoned that this futility on a surface suited to her game sprang from the fecklessness in North America that she seemed to have conquered. This hope proved illusory, however, when Kvitova exited in the fourth round of the US Open to Bartoli after a strangely listless effort that culminated in a third-set bagel. Reversing her rout of the Frenchwoman in Canada, that match thrust her into a spiral from which she never quite recovered in a brief fall campaign. Losing five of her last seven matches in 2012, Kvitova provided a fitting metaphor for her season when she withdrew from the scene of her 2011 triumph in Istanbul after one match, a desultory loss to Radwanska.
Unlike Tsonga, her ATP counterpart in this series, last year’s Wimbledon champion remains well within her developing years and grow stronger from experiencing adversity. This sometimes stubborn competitor should reflect on what she can learn from the season, especially the price that she paid for reckless, overly anxious play in many of her most important matches. As she matures, she must transition from precocious talent and trendy dark horse to a contender for all seasons, the seeds of which any contender can recognize in her. Now that Kvitova has suffered the sophomore slump that afflicts plenty of young champions, she should rebound to reach a more auspicious category in our review of 2013.
Number to note:
1: Not associated with Kvitova in the way that most expected. She won just one match all year against an opponent with a single-digit ranking (Wozniacki in Montreal) after winning five straight in her last tournament of 2012.
Signature Achievement of the Year (ATP)