Every season, a few key matches change the course of a tennis season dramatically. Not always the most exciting or the most aesthetically pleasing matches, they acquire a greater meaning in retrospect. We select four of these matches and imagine how the season might have unfolded for their protagonists and others had they ended with a different outcome. Note that we intend this article merely as an exercise in creative fiction, not as a set of realistic predictions.
Sharapova vs. Kvitova, Australian Open semifinal:
What happened: In a rollercoaster three-setter and tense final set, Sharapova served at 4-4, 0-30. She correctly challenged a baseline call on the next point and would lose only one more point thereafter as Kvitova tightened under the pressure. Azarenka then crushed Sharapova in the final to reach the world #1 ranking, while the Czech began an erratic first half without a single finals appearance.
What could have happened: At 4-4, 0-30, Hawkeye confirms the call on the baseline and leaves Sharapova down triple break point. Although she saves the first two, a penetrating Kvitova return on a second serve at 30-40 draws a netted reply from the Russian. The Czech then serves out the match against a deflated Sharapova and advances to the final against Azarenka, where she delivers her fourth consecutive victory over Vika and third in a final.
Kvitova wins the Australian Open and becomes the #1 player in the world. With the consequent boost of confidence, she also wins the Roland Garros semifinal rematch with Sharapova and crushes Errani in the final for her third title in four majors. Denied by Serena at Wimbledon, she nevertheless finishes the season as the top-ranked woman and clearly establishes herself as the player to beat from the younger generation. Chris Evert calls her “the best player in the history of the Czech Republic.” Martina Navratilova glares at her.
Azarenka becomes something similar to Nadal in 2011, thwarted consistently by one player although losing to few others. She does not reach the #1 ranking or win a major, but she does complete the Indian Wells-Miami double during Kvitova’s usual skid through North America.
Sharapova suffers a loss of confidence following another late-round loss in a major to the woman who conquered her in the Wimbledon final. She does not complete the career Grand Slam or reach the #1 ranking. Towards the end of the season, she wonders whether her comeback has progressed as far as it could have. In November, she marries Sasha Vujacic in Istanbul and considers moving on from tennis.
Djokovic vs. Murray, Australian Open semifinal:
What happened: In an ugly but compelling five-setter, both men squandered leads before Djokovic spurted ahead 5-2 in the final set. Murray then rallied to 5-5 and held break points on the Serb’s serve. The defending champion saved them, one with an audacious forehand winner, and then broke his rival in the next game to reach the final, where he won that immortal epic over Nadal.
What could have happened: Serving at 5-5, 15-40, Djokovic misses his attempt at a forehand winner down the line to drop serve. After a nervy game with multiple deuces, Murray succeeds in serving out the match to reach his third consecutive Australian Open final. Channeling the same fearless aggression that he showed against Nadal here in 2010, he stuns the Spaniard in four sets for his first major title. He also wins the rematch with Djokovic in the Miami final, establishing himself as a fully equal partner in the ATP Big Four.
Djokovic wins no titles and no matches against top-four opponents in the first half. Commentators conclude that his 2011 campaign represented an aberration and that he now has reverted to his familiar enigmatic self.
When Roland Garros arrives, the only question concerns how many games Nadal will lose en route to the title. He wins the tournament without dropping a set for the third time in five years. After a resounding victory over Federer in the final, he tells his archrival again that he is the greatest player in the history. Federer says, “As long as it’s not Novak.” Uncle Toni says, “We still have many things to improve.”
Already having won a major title, Murray marches into the Wimbledon final and quickly claims a two-set lead over Federer, converting a break point at 4-4 in the second set. Although the Swiss star rallies, Murray ultimately prevails to end Great Britain’s historic drought at majors and rise within range of the #1 ranking. But, tired and satiated from his accomplishments, he loses early at the Olympics.
In Murray’s absence, Djokovic cruises through the draw at the Olympics. He defeats a tired Federer in an uneventful final to claim the gold medal. That accomplishment propels him through a tremendous second half that includes a US Open title defense and a second title at the year-end championships.
Great Britain and Serbia rejoice. Switzerland shrugs.
Serena vs. Zheng, Wimbledon third round:
What happened: Just weeks after she fell to Razzano at Roland Garros, Serena came to the brink of another first-week loss here. Three times forced to hold serve to stay in the match, she won all three of those games at love before finally breaking the tenacious Chinese star. Serena eventually swept Wimbledon and the Olympics in a return to her vintage dominance.
What could have happened: Serena survives at 4-5 and 5-6, but her first serve deserts her at 6-7. Rushing from nerves as she did in the two previous majors, she commits three unforced errors to give Zheng a match point. Serena does hit a strong first serve and moves forward behind it, but the counterpuncher crouches low to the grass and fires an improbable passing shot down the line.
Following through on rumors trickling from her camp at Roland Garros, Serena announces that she will retire after participating with her sister in the Olympics. Venus announces that she will retire as well. Kvitova defends her Wimbledon title after another three-set victory over Azarenka in the semifinals.
At the Olympics, Serena wins the doubles gold medal with Venus in the final great accomplishment of their careers. Although she battles to the quarterfinals in singles, like Clijsters, she falls to Wozniacki in a rematch of their Miami meeting. Wozniacki eventually wins the bronze medal over Kirilenko and uses the victory to catalyze a strong second half. She reaches her second US Open final and finishes the season inside the top 5.
Sharapova narrowly nudges Azarenka to take the gold medal and become the second woman to complete a career Golden Slam. She says in her post-tournament press conference that she will miss the challenge of playing Serena. Serena texts her to say, “I’ll miss playing you too.”
Sloane Stephens suddenly becomes the heir apparent to the Williams throne. Under the unaccustomed pressure, she falls to Schiavone in the first round. TV ratings for the US Open drop dramatically, especially for a women’s final between Azarenka and Wozniacki played the day after Serena announces her plans for a reality show. Azarenka claims her second major title of 2012, although the commentators spend most of the match discussing the impact left by Serena’s retirement on the women’s game and whether the WTA can survive without her.
Federer vs. Djokovic, Wimbledon semifinal:
What happened: In four sets of uneven quality, Federer defeated Djokovic at a major for the first time in over a year, finally snapping his semifinal futility against the top two. He then defeated Murray in the final for his record-extending 17th major title and record-tying seventh Wimbledon crown. Somewhat deflated by the loss, Djokovic failed to win a medal at the Olympics.
What could have happened: Serving at 4-5 in the third set, Djokovic holds confidently with an authoritative smash. The set soon reaches a tiebreak, which the Serb captures after saving a set point. A discouraged Federer fades sharply in the fourth set, losing his first service game and never earning a break point on Djokovic’s serve thereafter. Djokovic defends his title by humiliating Murray in a final that recalls the rout when they met at the 2011 Australian Open.
Djokovic now has won five consecutive non-clay majors and restored his spirits after losing the Roland Garros final to Nadal. This wave of confidence propels him to the gold-medal match at the Olympics despite indifferent form influenced by his fatigue. Depleted in energy from a series of long matches, Djokovic loses the gold-medal match to a Federer bent on revenge, who becomes the third man to complete a career Golden Slam.
Serbia and Switzerland rejoice. Scotland shrugs. England says, “What do we care about a Scot?”
Murray spends the rest of the season licking his wounds from his disappointment, losing early at both the Olympics and the US Open. He announces the end of his partnership with Ivan Lendl, although the voice informing Lendl over the telephone sounds curiously female. Mats Wilander calls Murray “clearly the best player never to win a major.” David Nalbandian kicks a wooden sign board at Wilander.
Djokovic wins three major titles for the second straight year. Commentators trumpet his emergence as the new Federer, wondering whether he will threaten the Swiss star’s record for major titles.
Federer decides that he needs to do something about the situation. He ends a three-year title drought at majors by winning the 2013 Australian Open. Some question his title in view of the fact that Nadal and Djokovic boycotted the tournament over its refusal to raise prize money for early-round losers. Federer says, “I didn’t think that this issue affected me, but I can see why it might matter to Rafa and Novak.”