Although Wimbledon technically ends the first half of the season, we found it more convenient to set the halfway point after Roland Garros. By now, the Tours have played half of the season’s majors, five of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments, and five of the nine Premier Mandatory / Premier Five events. With all of that action behind us, we showcase the five most memorable women’s matches that 2012 has featured so far. Not just searching for the best or most aesthetically satisfying tennis, we balance that factor with others like the drama of the circumstances and the broader significance of the match outside its specific context. Enjoy the countdown, and check back later for the men’s version.
5) Azarenka d. Cibulkova, Miami
The final chapter in Vika’s sizzling start to the season, her 26th consecutive victory culminated the streak in style by producing a stirring comeback. After trailing Cibulkova, a recurrent thorn in her side, by a set and 5-2, Azarenka rallied to win the second set in a tiebreak and preserve just enough composure to edge a fiercely contested decider. An indication of her maturity, her balance of relentless determination and timely poise proved as pivotal to this victory as to the 25 that preceded it, illustrating her worthiness to hold the top ranking. Meanwhile, even after the second set slipped away, Cibulkova battled the world #1 for every game in an effort that foreshadowed her victory over Azarenka at Roland Garros, another turning point in the first half.
4) Serena d. Azarenka / Serena d. Sharapova, Madrid
In the wake of demoralizing losses to Makarova in Melbourne and Wozniacki in Miami, doubts hovered around Serena’s continued viability as a contender who could continue to challenge the elite. Winning Charleston against a depleted field, Serena still traveled to Madrid with much to prove. And prove it she did, defeating the top two women in the world by identical 6-1, 6-3 scores. Not the most dramatic matches of 2012 by any standard, this quarterfinal and final showcased the greatest champion of her generation at her fiery best. Especially impressive was her return of serve, which blazed through the blue clay with uncanny timing and precision. While the question of whether she can win more majors remains unanswered, Serena gained visible satisfaction from this most significant title of her comeback to date.
3) Sharapova d. Stosur, Stuttgart
When two immensely talented women strike their less reliable shots to perfection for three hours, an instant classic ensues. From a perspective of pure quality, the best women’s match of 2012 unfolded on Stuttgart’s indoor clay, where Stosur swung through her down-the-line backhand with confidence and Sharapova found every corner of the box with her serve. Unusual for the WTA, the match featured just three service breaks and two tiebreaks in its three sets. Had Sharapova not saved a match point at 3-5 in the second set, or had Stosur served it out a game later, a career Grand Slam might not have happened at Roland Garros. This triumph instead marked the first of three straight top-five wins for the Russian in Stuttgart, a critical confidence boost at an ideal moment. But those who watched Stosur’s effort must have felt little surprise when she cruised through five rounds in Paris, the only women’s semifinalist not to lose a set. In none of those victories, though, did she look as impressive as she did in this defeat, her most sustained display of brilliance since winning the US Open.
2) Razzano d. Serena, Roland Garros
On one side of the net stood the title favorite, a 13-time major champion who had not lost a match on clay all year and never had lost in the first round of a major. On the other side of the net stood a French wildcard ranked outside the top 100, who lacked a single major quarterfinal and had won just eight matches all season. While the first two sets stayed closer than anyone would have expected, the inevitable loomed when Serena took a 5-1 lead in the second-set tiebreak. Buoyed by the increasingly fervent French crowd, however, Razzano swept the next six points with startlingly aggressive play. She never looked back thereafter, although a 23-minute, 12-deuce final game offered a masterpiece in controlled suspense as break points alternated with match points and sublime shot-making with hideous errors. Even the normally reserved leadership of the FFT levitated from their seats more than once before the upset ended. Razzano’s achievement presaged those of other underdogs in an upset-riddled women’s draw, while Serena’s demise raised the stakes for her fortnight at Wimbledon.
1) Sharapova d. Li, Rome
In virtually every significant WTA final this year, the outcome had become clear after four or five games and the champion cruised to victory soon thereafter. Flipping the script dramatically was a Rome final in which virtually everyone and everything interjected itself, from the wind and rain to helicopters and impassioned soccer fans outside the stadium. First came Li’s steady accumulation of a commanding lead through the first set and a half. Then came Sharapova’s roaring comeback, which carried her to a commanding lead of her own midway through the third set. Undaunted by the reversal, Li then mounted a second surge that not only erased the deficit but brought her to a match point, which the defending champion saved with courage. Moments later, on the eve of a third-set tiebreak, rain descended upon the Foro Italico for two hours. When play resumed under the lights, both women swung fearlessly despite the high stakes, looking as though they never had stopped. This Premier Five title ultimately climaxed with the spectacle of Kader Nouni stooping over a sodden sideline on championship point—and with both women smiling at each other moments later as they reflected on what they had endured.
No reflection upon a season’s best matches can end properly without mentioning some of its worst. We present the three most disappointing women’s matches of 2012.
3) Errani d. Stosur, Roland Garros
For the second time in three years, Stosur let a feisty Italian tangle her straightforward but effective game in knots. Errani’s tenacity aside, the 2010 finalist committed nearly 50 unforced errors in a match that she should have dominated, like most of their previous meetings. Instead of lightening the pressure upon her, the US Open title may have heightened Stosur’s psychological burden late in majors by raising the expectations upon her.
2) Radwanska d. Bartoli, Miami
In a match of 18 games, the players combined for three total service holds. Without holding serve at all in this semifinal, Bartoli once trailed by the respectable score of 6-4, 3-2. When two top-ten players meet at one of the most prestigious non-majors on the calendar, the WTA desperately needs an encounter of higher quality than those two could provide. Kudos to the lights for trying to conceal the embarrassment with a timely power outage.
1) Azarenka d. Radwanska, anywhere
Hinting at the possibility of an exciting rivalry were their first two meetings, which Azarenka rallied to win after losing the first two sets. But four consecutive thrashings between February and May revealed this rivalry as no rivalry at all, for Radwanska lacked even a shred of self-belief against an opponent whom she had troubled repeatedly until this year. One rather dreaded the draws that aligned them to meet in semifinals at significant tournaments, although this series of debacles invariably reflected well upon the other semifinalists by comparison. Rarely have we stretched our wits so far as when attempting to preview these regular exercises in tedium and predictability.