While some of the 2012 awards witnessed stiff competition, this category became a foregone conclusion midway through the season.
The actors and the stage:
Despite an inauspicious start to 2012, Serena had regrouped after Miami with convincing title surges in Charleston and Madrid. Lest anyone draw distinctions among green, blue, and red clay, moreover, she reached the semifinals in Rome before issuing a precautionary walkover. The 12-time major champion had not won Roland Garros in a decade, but she entered the tournament as the favorite according to conventional wisdom because of her momentum and her continuing dominance over the WTA elite.
No longer the top-20 threat that she posed at her prime, Razzano had sunk into decline even before the death of her coach and boyfriend in 2011 had struck a severe emotional blow. Ranked outside the top 100, she had won just two main-draw matches all season, one over a Tunisian wildcard in Doha. Overcoming Venus to win the Tokyo title in 2007, the 29-year-old Frenchwoman never had faced the younger Williams.
Striding onto Centre Court at the All England Club late in a June afternoon, Nadal had not lost before the final at Wimbledon since 2005. A few weeks before, he had captured a record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title and reversed the dispiriting spiral of his rivalry to Djokovic with a four-set victory over the Serb. As the next major began, then, intrigue hovered around whether he could extend the momentum from defending his terre battue citadel to reconquering the grass from Djokovic, who had defeated him in last year’s final. His route to the semifinals looked startlingly clear, and one struggled to imagine Murray halting his Wimbledon futility against the Spaniard at that stage.
Outside the Czech Republic, very few fans recognized the angular figure of 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol. Not until the first round this year had he won a main-draw match at Wimbledon, and his year had featured just a single ATP quarterfinal in Belgrade. Like most men languishing at this level, Rosol had included several challengers on his schedule, and he had not even reached the final at any of those. He had recorded two total appearances at Masters 1000 tournaments and four appearances at majors.
While Serena won the first set from the underdog, omens of trouble appeared from the outset. Little from this match would merit inclusion on a highlight reel or instructional video, least of all the awkward movement that scarcely resembled her earlier crispness on clay. Contributing to her struggles were lapses of focus that resulted in uninspired shot selection, and her loss of serve in the opening game hinted at the frailty of her greatest weapon on this day. Nor did Razzano distinguish herself in the first half of the match, maintaining a level just high enough to stay within range of the champion but unable to exploit most of the opportunities offered her.
Late in the second set, however, this unsightly encounter still looked much less like an upset in the making than an unnecessarily arduous beginning to Serena’s fortnight. Able to survive until a tiebreak in that set, Razzano quickly dropped five of the first six points. Within two points of escaping in straight sets, Serena needed merely a pair of overpowering serves—or, more plausibly, a pair of misses from her opponent. But at this pivotal crossroads, one of the greatest closers in WTA history could not close, while a fading player subject to errors suddenly ceased to err. After a mental mistake in which Serena failed to play a ball near the baseline, Razzano reeled off six straight points to capture the tiebreak with assertive yet disciplined tennis. Tears trickled down Serena’s face during the ensuing changeover.
Even then, one expected the tears to turn into rage as the champion roared back to trample her feisty foe with an emphatic bagel or breadstick in the third set. To the contrary, Serena could not harness her emotions productively during the next five games, which would cost her the match. Listless in body language and disengaged in mind, she could not right her ship until she trailed 1-5, at which point a wearying Razzano grew tense and threw her a lifeline. Serena’s miniature comeback soon reached 3-5, a service break from drawing essentially level in the final set. In the pivotal ninth game, one of the longest in the WTA season, she saved seven match points as she battled Razzano for twenty minutes, the last on an audacious, sideline-scraping backhand winner. To her credit and the crowd’s delight, the home hope did not flinch but swiped away each of Serena’s break points and created yet more chances for herself. The eighth ended in a backhand error by the favorite and by far the greatest victory of Razzano’s career.
Much like the Roland Garros match, the Wimbledon match began with the favorite winning a tight first set that did not conceal the signs of trouble looming ahead. Unable to consolidate an early break, Nadal could not threaten Rosol’s serve for the rest of the first set and needed to save set points on his own serve merely to reach a tiebreak. That protracted affair forced him to save further set points and would have extended even further had not the world #100 committed exactly the type of error on a service point that one would anticipate from a world #100 in that position. At that stage, most expected that Nadal would assert his control over the match and record a relatively routine victory, as he had after a difficult first set in the first round.
Undeterred despite his disappointment, Rosol rallied almost immediately to break an unwary Nadal early in the second set and pound his way through emphatic service holds to draw level. While the tennis world still reeled from that event, he rode the wave of momentum to repeat the feat almost exactly in the third set. A visibly befuddled Nadal suddenly trailed by two sets to one against an opponent who had not lost serve since early in the first set. But he had regrouped from such a predicament in the second round of two previous Wimbledons, eventually reaching the final in 2006 and winning the title in 2010. Aware that Rafa simply does not lose in the first week of majors, observers simply prepared more tributes to his tenacity and reacted without surprise when he rolled through the fourth set behind spectacular defense and pinpoint passing shots.
With his momentum shattered and the favorite resurgent, the underdog needed a respite to collect himself. Rosol received that crucial respite as the roof closed over Centre Court, creating a lengthy delay and the type of conditions that most favored his uncompromising first strikes. Nevertheless, the most surprising plot twist of the match came in the first game of the final set, when tentative play from Nadal culminated with astonishingly poor placement on a net putaway that allowed Rosol to connect with the break-producing pass. From there, the narrative revolved around whether the Czech could cling to that lead with five service holds. Shaky in his first two service games, he grew more rather than less dominant as the finish line approached. As Nadal does so well, however, he held his own serve relentlessly until the climax with Rosol serving at 5-4, which could not have differed more from the climax to the Razzano match. In the most important game of his career, the 100th-ranked man hit one total groundstroke. After an ace, a forehand winner, and another ace, triple match point arrived. Rising to the occasion with nerves of steel, Rosol struck yet another ace to deliver one of the greatest shocks in Wimbledon history.
Although she exited the tournament in the next round, Razzano appeared to ignite the forces of chaos in a Roland Garros women’s draw that soon spun out of anyone’s control. Anyone, that is, but the inexorable Sharapova, who did not waste her opportunity to plow through an upset-riddled draw to secure a career Grand Slam, a prestigious accomplishment that likely would not have happened if not for Razzano. The local heroine’s accomplishment also may have inspired her compatriot Tsonga, who mounted an unexpected challenge to Djokovic that resulted in the best men’s match of the tournament. Perhaps most significantly, the setback galvanized Serena to perhaps her most sustained span of excellence since her non-calendar Slam in 2002-03. Ironically, then, the American and her fans probably should feel grateful to Razzano for reinvigorating her victim’s career.
Also gone in the next round, to Philipp Kohlschreiber, Rosol showed no more sign than Razzano of vaulting from his upset to becoming a perennial threat. Similarly, his impact registered in a more indirect manner by opening the pathway for Federer to halt a major-title drought that had lasted more than two years, an improbable event as long as Nadal remained in the draw. While he catalyzed the Swiss master’s return to #1, where he broke another marquee record, Rosol also laid the foundation for Murray’s summer breakthrough by removing his Wimbledon nemesis in recent years. Without the confidence gained from reaching his first Wimbledon final and competing so courageously there, Great Britain’s champion might have ended 2012 without a medal or his maiden major. Finally, the disappearance of Nadal after that fateful evening in London created one of the most intriguing storylines for 2013 as fans wonder what lies ahead for his crumbling body.
Numbers to note:
0: The number of first-round matches that Serena had lost at majors before facing Razzano at Roland Garros. With her loss, no active woman now owns a perfect record in the first round of majors.
69: The ranking of Gilles Muller when he defeated Nadal at Wimbledon in 2005, also in the second round. No player ranked lower than #69 had toppled the Spaniard at a major until the Rosol ambush.
Woman of the Year