A mistress of multitasking, Roland Garros runner-up Sara Errani played 138 matches in singles and women’s doubles this year, winning enough of them to finish as the top-ranked doubles player and, remarkably, as the world #6 in singles.
Before 2012, tennis aficionados knew Sara Errani as a doubles specialist who had compiled laudable successes in that form of competition—and as cannon fodder in singles main draws. The casual fans knew her as an anonymous character who flickered onto their television screens in the first week of majors before meekly succumbing to a more familiar name and flickering off again. A player who spent much of her singles career in morning matches on outer courts, Errani soared this year to primetime encounters in cavernous stadiums, where often she acquitted herself with poise.
At the Australian Open began her steady climb up the rankings ladder, perhaps ignited in part by her brilliance in doubles. Reaching the final there with Roberta Vinci, she plowed through a cozy singles draw to climb into her first major quarterfinal. Although Kvitova predictably dispatched her once there, Errani displayed a competitive effort that exceeded expectations and foreshadowed her rise. Also foreshadowed by this fortnight was her ability to showcase her talents in singles and doubles at the same tournament, fatigue notwithstanding. To be sure, Errani did not capitalize upon this breakthrough immediately by departing from Indian Wells and Miami with minimal ado. At the latter event, however, she earned solace by reaching a marquee final with Vinci in a theme that would set the tone for much of her season. Rather than depleting her energies, participating with her friend and compatriot and the doubles competition appeared to invigorate Errani’s spirits. And, when her fortunes faltered in singles, triumphs in doubles usually arrived at key moments to bolster her morale.
Having swept the singles and doubles titles at the small event in Acapulco, the tireless Italian repeated the feat in her first European tournament of 2012. Errani did not drop a set en route to the Barcelona singles title, overcoming a variety of heavy hitters such as Goerges and fellow counterpunchers like Cibulkova, nor did she drop a set with Vinci in the doubles draw. Overwhelming a pedestrian Budapest field two weeks later, she arrived weary in Madrid and was overwhelmed by Radwanska. But she earned solace by launching a thrilling charge to that Premier Mandatory doubles title with Vinci that culminated with two match tiebreaks against formidable Russian squads. Much the same plotline unfolded the following week in Rome, where an early setback in singles preceded a flawless title surge in doubles: eight sets played, eight sets won. When she traveled to the year’s second major, then, she had established herself as a clear contender for its doubles crown.
What Errani had not quite done was establish herself as a clear contender for its singles crown, and very few (if any) prognosticators filled out draws that remotely resembled what lay ahead. Much of the intrigue in her section swirled around the second-round meeting between Radwanska and Venus Williams, as well as the clash pitting the winner against former champion Kuznetsova. While attention focused upon those matches, Errani recovered from losing the first set in two of her first three matches to reach the second week. She secured the latter of those victories at the expense of 2008 champion Ivanovic, rebounding from a dismal first set and staying within range just long enough in the second to grab a crucial cluster of points that shifted the momentum. All the same, Kuznetsova’s clinical evisceration of Radwanska in the third round suggested that she would end Errani’s adventure. Leaving the Russian bewildered with her versatile arsenal of shots, to the contrary, the Italian never allowed the 2009 champion to find her range in a stunningly routine victory. Somewhat less surprising but also less routine was the quarterfinal victory over Kerber, which hovered on the brink of a third set. Since the German had excelled in final sets all season, Errani needed to close out the second-set tiebreak almost as much as did her opponent. When she accomplished that task, memories of Schiavone’s 2010 fortnight here raced through minds.
On a windy afternoon, Errani faced former Roland Garros finalist Stosur in a semifinal clash that opposed one of the WTA’s most imposing servers against one of its weakest. The underdog held a valuable advantage in one area, however, which proved vital when the match entered a final set. With nothing to lose, she leaned on her tenacity to outlast the more mentally fallible Stosur, who contributed to her own demise by losing her grasp on the fundamental components of the game that Errani executed so well throughout the fortnight. And thus an even more jarring contrast in styles loomed in the final between the ferocious groundstrokes of Sharapova and the deft touch of a woman over whom the Russian towered in stature and reputation. Not only arrayed against one of her generation’s great champions, Errani also battled the inevitable nerves of her first major singles final. Through the first four games, those nerves visibly undermined her, but then she caught her breath, sank her teeth into the match, and displayed a sprightly competitive spirit until the last point of a final more competitive and more crisply played than the scoreline suggested. Only after a sequence of long deuce games and arduous rallies did Sharapova finally escape the terrier who nipped at her heels, and Errani yielded only after a pair of exquisite drop shots thrilled the Paris crowd in the final game.
Having collected a runner-up trophy in singles, a championship trophy in doubles, and a top-10 ranking all in a single weekend, the small Italian turned from the toast of Paris to just ordinary toast in London. She suffered the indignity of Shvedova’s “golden set” at Wimbledon and fell quickly at the Olympics, where she failed to claim a medal even in doubles. Stagnant in both phases of her game for the first time this year, Errani collected herself at the ideal moment to achieve almost as much at the major with the fastest surface as she had at the major with the slowest surface. Proving herself a woman for all seasons (except maybe grass), she combined her second major doubles title of 2012 with a semifinal appearance in singles. Of her victories, the most impressive came against fellow top-10 resident Kerber, who surely had harbored hopes of revenge for Roland Garros on a surface more suited to her game. Despite her comprehensive loss to Serena in the semifinals, which only a miracle could have averted, Errani ended the season as optimistically as she had begun it. In her debut at the year-end championships, she edged within a few games of the semifinals in a 209-minute war of attrition against Radwanska that ended her epic year in fittingly epic fashion.
Among the caveats to Errani’s breakthrough season was her lack of a signature victory against one of the top four women on the Tour. Despite her elevated status, the Tour’s heaviest hitters pounded her into submission again and again, from Sharapova and Kvitova to the Williams sisters. (One suspects that Sharapova was sincere in claiming at Roland Garros that she hopes to play “many more finals” against her.) Facing shot-makers of that quality, Errani’s serve probably will remain too severe a liability to overcome. On the other hand, she regularly brought her best tennis to the most important tournaments, and she showed remarkable physical and mental durability in combining exceptional singles with doubles success throughout the long season. Still in the middle period of her career, Errani can continue to remain around the fringes of the top ten for some time to come if she can continue to reproduce her patient, tenacious tennis while remaining healthy amidst a heavy schedule. From what we learned in 2012, the WTA’s leading workaholic should approach that challenge with zeal.
Number to note:
17: The number of matches that Errani won at majors this year, which ties her for third in the WTA with Kvitova and some person called Serena Williams. Those victories show that she didn’t just gorge herself on an overstuffed schedule with weak draws, although such tournaments contributed to her ranking, but actually won matches when it mattered most.
Unsung Hero of the Year