Introducing the BTB Awards, our look back at the best — and worst — of the tennis season. Today we examine the biggest surprises. Who saw any of this coming?
• Lukas Rosol stuns Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon: It was supposed to be routine: Rosol, ranked No. 100 and without an ATP Tour-level grass-court victory when the year began, faced two-time Wimbledon champion Nadal in the second round. Nadal was coming off a Rafa-esque clay season, winning four titles in five events and defeating Novak Djokovic in three straight finals, including the French Open. Gone was the heavy-headed Rafa of 2011, who told the press that he had lost his passion for the game. Back was the snarling Rafa, full of belief and confidence, on the verge of mounting a charge to unseat Djokovic as No. 1.
But there was Rosol, who took the court with absolutely no fear, checking his conscience at the door and playing the match of his life to topple Nadal 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. Nothing could stop Rosol that evening. Not Nadal’s determination, not the roof closing, not even — and this is important — nerves. As the crowd roared for the upset — hold up, could this guy really do this? — Rosol went into a deep knee bend to combat the adrenaline coursing through his veins and played the best closing game I’ve ever seen a lower-ranked player put together against the Big Four. How do you ensure Rafa won’t beat you? You take the racket out of his hand.
Ace. Forehand winner. Ace. Ace. Game, set, match.
The match, Nadal’s last of the season because of a knee injury, elevated Rosol to legendary giant-killer status. The No. 100-ranked guy isn’t supposed to beat the No. 2 guy. That just doesn’t happen on the ATP Tour these days. Until it did.
• Virginie Razzano hands Serena Williams her first first-round loss at a Slam: Serena’s year can be divided into two phases: B.R. — Before Razzano — and A.R. — After Razzano. Heading into Roland Garros, Williams was a heavy favorite. Fully fit, she was undefeated on clay, winning warm-up tournaments in Charleston, S.C., and Madrid with her focus on securing her second French Open title. But in a tension-filled match that lasted more than three hours, 29-year-old French veteran Razzano, ranked No. 111, stunned Williams 4-6 7-6 (5) 6-3 and ended the American’s 46-0 run in the first round of majors.
The dramatic match included Serena’s crying on a changeover, hindrance calls and cramping. You never know which way the match would go until the final point was won. After coming back to win the second set to even the match, Razzano raced to a 5-0 lead as Williams was reeling emotionally. Williams settled down and swept three straight games to get back to 3-5, and you knew that if Razzano did not hold the next game, Serena would find a way to win the set.
Thus ensued a 22-minute service game in which Williams saved seven match points before finally succumbing on the eighth. The fact that Serena was able to bounce back from this devastating loss and drop only one match the rest of 2012 gets an honorable mention for surprise of the year. This loss was brutal, and it opened up the draw for Maria Sharapova to capture her first Roland Garros title and complete the career Slam, another unexpected result.
You can watch the final game of the match starting at the 31-minute mark here. And here was Williams’ reaction to the loss:
• Brian Baker makes up for lost time: Hollywood is built on stories like this one. It’s probably fair to say that not too many tennis fans knew who Brian Baker was before this year. A promising young junior a decade ago whom Andy Roddick thought he’d be competing alongside for years to come, Baker’s body failed him. He racked up injury after injury and underwent five surgeries (including three on his hips and one on his elbow) that took him off the tour for six years and robbed him of his chance to realize his potential. He attended college and took a coaching job at Belmont University.
It wasn’t until last year that he began to trust his body. So in true American spirit, he packed his bag and went to work. His ranking languished around No. 300 in April when he won eight matches at the Savannah Challenger (three in qualifying, five in the main draw) to take the title, igniting a stretch that featured his first ATP main-draw final (in Nice, France, where his upset victims included Gael Monfils), his first victory at a major in seven years (he defeated Xavier Malisse in the first round of the French Open) and a fourth-round appearance as a qualifier at his first Wimbledon. Baker peaked at No. 52 in October before finishing the year ranked No. 61.
(And while we’re on the subject of feel-good stories involving injury-plagued players who overcame hip surgery, let’s acknowledge another 2012 surprise, 34-year-old Tommy Haas, who began the year outside the top 200 but ended No. 21 thanks to a 31-16 season highlighted by a victory against Roger Federer in the Halle final.)
Here’s a look at Baker’s emergence:
• Victoria Azarenka’s 26-match winning streak: I remember sitting in the stands with a colleague at Indian Wells watching Azarenka dismantle Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-2 as both of us wondered aloud, “How do you beat Vika when she’s playing like this?” For 26 matches to start the season, no one had the answer. Azarenka’s maiden Slam title, at the Australian Open, wasn’t a surprise. She had the talent and just needed to stay fit and keep her composure for a two-week tournament.
But to see Azarenka sustain a high level over a three-month span, demolishing fields to win four straight tournaments, was no less awe-inspiring than when we watched Novak Djokovic do it just a season ago. Azarenka’s streak ended far earlier, with a tired loss to Marion Bartoli in Miami, but during her unbeaten run she looked strong and resilient and played with a superior level of control that I didn’t think we’d see from her at such a young age. The fact that she was able to essentially hold that form for the remainder of the year and maintain the No. 1 ranking in the face of a strong charge from Sharapova and Williams was further proof that this was a young woman transformed.
Here she is celebrating her 6-2, 6-3 shellacking of Sharapova in the Indian Wells final. We saw that celebration a lot this year.
• Wild-card entrants Jonathan Marray and Freddie Nielsen win Wimbledon: Two friends named Jonny and Freddie, who had never won a title together, get a wild card into the Wimbledon doubles event thanks to Marray’s British passport, and proceed to upset a slate of accomplished doubles teams — Bob and Mike Bryan; Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez; and Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau — in a series of exciting five-setters to win the Wimbledon title. There was no more surprising result in tennis this year. No one could have called this one, not even your crazy uncle down at the track. It made Marray the first British man to win a Wimbledon doubles title in 76 years. Nielsen became the first Dane to win a Wimbledon title since … his grandfather. That’s right, Nielsen’s grandfather Kurt won the Wimbledon junior boys’ singles title in 1947.
Highlights from the roof-covered final, where Marray/Nielsen defeated Lindstedt/Tecau 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 6-3.
• Laura Robson makes the second week of the U.S. Open: The 18-year-old Robson’s first full year on the WTA Tour started slowly because of injuries. By the time the summer rolled around, the former Wimbledon girls’ champ finally had gotten some traction. But for all the hype surrounding Robson — that kind of happens when you’re British — no one could have anticipated her run in New York, where she sent three-time U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters into retirement with a poised 7-6 (4) 7-6 (5) victory in the second round — the left-hander came back from 2-5 down in the first set and saved three set points — and followed that up by upsetting a surging Li Na 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2. Robson’s performance was a shocker at a time when teenage success is a rarity.
Highlights of Robson’s win over Clijsters. She just hit her off the court.
What were the big surprises of the 2012 season for you? Let us know in the comments.