The BTB Awards are our look back at the best — and worst — of the tennis season. Today we look at players who came out of nowhere, rose faster than expected or just plain exceeded expectations to become some of the biggest stories of the year. Can they keep the momentum going in 2013?
1. Sara Errani: Before 2012, the diminutive Italian was the definition of journeywoman. Spending most of her career in the shadows cast by her charismatic countrywomen, 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, she came into the year having never cracked the top 30 and with just two small titles, from 2008. To put it cruelly, Errani was a nonfactor on the WTA, undersized and underpowered, incapable of causing an upset of any notice, let alone making it deep into a major tournament. He career best at a Grand Slam was the third round.
There were no indications that Errani was even capable of having the run she did in 2012, when she picked up four titles and made the quarterfinals or better at three Slams, including the final of Roland Garros and the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Errani, 25, credited a racket change at the beginning of the year. She bought herself out of her Wilson contract in order to go with Babolat, a racket she said gave her that little extra bit of pop that made all the difference. Under coach Paolo Lozano, Errani became the David Ferrer of the WTA. She couldn’t come close to beating the elite, but Errani became one of the toughest outs in women’s tennis. Her consistency — a 55-22 record — put her right outside the top five by season’s end (she was the No. 1 doubles player, to boot). No one saw that coming.
2. Jerzy Janowicz: The future of the ATP is big, strong and more athletic than it has any right to be. The 22-year-old Janowicz comes in the mold of the big men before him — namely Juan Martin del Potro — a 6-foot-8 guy who can not only thwack the ball but also has soft hands and can move with ease and fluidity. Janowicz began the year ranked outside the top 200 but toiled away in the ATP Challenger circuit to get his ranking up to try to get direct entry into Slams. By June, he had earned a spot in the qualifying draw at Wimbledon and made the third round — his best Slam result — where he lost to Florian Mayer 7-5 in the fifth set. That run put him into the top 100, and thanks in part to a snazzy name that remains my favorite on tour, Janowicz became a young guy to watch.
Then came the Paris Indoors, where Janowicz qualified and then hijacked the headlines every day as he became the first man — along with fellow finalist Ferrer — ranked outside the top four to make the finals of a Masters 1000 tournament in two years. He did it with an astounding combination of power and touch, defeating Andy Murray, Janko Tipsarevic, Marin Cilic, Gilles Simon and Philipp Kohlschreiber. What made Janowicz’s run special was his ability to sustain such a high level over the course of the week. There’s a reason he’s on this list but another tall, hard-hitting young gun, Rafael Nadal-slayer Lukas Rosol, isn’t. One match doesn’t make you a breakthrough player. Sustained solid play does, and Janowicz got better and better as the year progressed and then capped it in Paris to finish the year ranked No. 26.
3. Angelique Kerber: While Errani was the breakthrough of the year, Kerber was my pick as the biggest surprise of the WTA season in our year-end roundtable. I won’t be redundant and spill more ink, but week in and week out Kerber shocked me with her resiliency and ability to maintain her form to finish in the top five.
4. Varvara Lepchenko: Chances are, the 26-year-old Lepchenko wasn’t the American (non-Williams division) you were paying attention to when the year began. With all the talk surrounding Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens, Lepchenko, who began the year outside the top 120, was a bit of an afterthought. That all changed in Madrid, where Lepchenko scored a big win over Schiavone in the first round en route to the quarterfinals, and followed that up by advancing to the fourth round at the French Open. The career-best showing at a Slam helped her earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, a remarkable achievement given where she started the year. She went on to make the third round of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and, as No. 21 in the world, finished as the second-ranked American, behind Serena Williams.
“A year ago, Baker shared an ATP ranking with you and me. That is, he didn’t have one at all.”
That line gave you all the context you needed for Baker’s run through the clay season (which included his first main-draw final, in Nice, France, and his first victory at a major in seven years, against Xavier Malisse at Roland Garros) and on to Wimbledon, where he made the fourth round, an incredible result when you consider he was a qualifier competing there as professional for the first time. In a year full of feel-good stories, it was hard not to fall for Baker’s. At 27, the soft-spoken Nashville native finished the season ranked No. 61. And if the story wasn’t enough for you, he had a beautiful game to match.
6. Laura Robson: Teen phenoms were supposed to be a thing of the past. Overblown expectation is the current trend, and Robson has had to deal with being under the British microscope since she won junior Wimbledon at 14. Now 18, the charismatic Robson could finally play a full WTA schedule, unencumbered by the tour’s age restrictions, and she put together a year that made you believe, even if just a little bit, in the hype.
While a second-week appearance at the U.S. Open — the first Slam at which she’s earned direct entry into the main draw — was what had people talking (beating two Slam champions and sending Kim Clijsters into retirement will do that), it’s easy to forget that on the whole, she had a solid year. She earned a silver medal with Andy Murray at the Olympics, made her first WTA semifinal, on the clay in Palermo, Sicily (and her second in Osaka), and reached her first WTA final, in Guangzhou, China, to finish just outside the top 50.
7. Kei Nishikori: Plagued by ill-timed injuries, the Japanese 22-year-old still managed two breakthrough results that made you believe he should be a top-20 staple for years. First came his success at the Australian Open, where he upset Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to become the first Japanese man to reach the quarterfinals since 1932. Then came his title on home soil in Tokyo, his first title in four years, where he knocked off Tomas Berdych, Marcos Baghdatis and Milos Raonic to become the first Japanese man to hoist that trophy.
8. Martin Klizan: He had never won back-to-back ATP Tour matches before this year. Barely inside the top 120 at the start of the season, Klizan’s was a slow and steady rise. The 23-year-old improved his ranking through the Challenger circuit and was full of confidence by the time of the U.S. Open, where he shocked Tsonga in the third round. Klizan carried that form through the end of the season; he topped Fabio Fognini at the St. Petersburg Open for his first title, becoming the ATP’s only first-time winner this year and putting him on track to finish a career-high No. 30.
9. David Goffin: The baby-faced Belgian charmed everyone at the French Open. He admitted to having grown up with posters of Roger Federer on his wall, idolizing the Swiss great since childhood, a childhood that really wasn’t all that long ago (he’s 21). So what better way to complete that idol worship than to make it to the fourth round of Roland Garros as a qualifier to earn a shot at Federer? Goffin actually took a set off Federer, showing flashes of his own genius with his shot-making. A few weeks later he knocked off Bernard Tomic in the first round of Wimbledon. There’s a lot to like in the youngster’s game — he climbed from No. 174 to No. 46 this season — and I’m glad we got to see it in 2012.
10. Hsieh Su-Wei: The 26-year-old spearheaded the rise of Taiwanese tennis on the women’s side. With a funky slice-and-dice style that frustrates opponents, Hsieh found her game under coach Paul McNamee and won the first two titles of her career. (She joined 1990s player Wang Shi-Ting as the only WTA winners from Taiwan). Beginning the year outside the top 170, Hsieh ended at No. 25.