With the clay-court season heating up, we thought it would be a good time to take stock of the season. Here are 23 stories, trends, videos and other memories from the year so far …
1. Serena Williams leads the charge of the “oldies but goodies:” Tommy Haas, 35, upset Novak Djokovic in Miami and made the semifinals of an ATP Masters 1000 for the first time since 2006. Kimiko Date-Krumm. 42, reached the third round of the Australian Open for the first time since 1995. Li Na, 30, made her third Grand Slam final by demolishing Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open semifinals. And Serena Williams, 31, retook the throne, becoming the oldest player in WTA history to hold the No. 1 ranking. They say tennis is a game for all ages. These four proved it.
2. Andy Murray consolidates his spot in the Big Four: Sure, he still has only one Slam title, but with his result in Australia, Murray’s now made three straight major finals and replaced Roger Federer at No. 2 (though Federer will take it back next week). That’s a good thing. You never want to see a player break through and then fall away. Murray’s too talented to let that happen in theory, the fact is it was a distinct possibility given the amount of pressure that finally fell away in September. Murray had an incredible three months last year, making the Wimbledon final, winning Olympic gold and then finally becoming the first British man in blah blah blah at the U.S. Open. The question was whether that was just a hot streak or the arrival of a new-and-improved Murray. It’s the latter, based on the first few months of this season.
Now if we could just do something about his impossibly tight kit shirt …
3. Rafael Nadal returns with a bang: Knees, schmees. Seven months off, and Nadal came back to go 17-1, winning three titles, including a huge one on the hard courts of Indian Wells. Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.
4. The steady rise of Generation Next: This is quietly shaping up to be the year that the 20-and-under set makes its mark with some consistency on the WTA. Laura Robson continued her giant-killing ways at the Slams by beating Petra Kvitova in Melbourne. Madison Keys has become a reliable early-round winner, and of course there was Sloane Stephens advancing to the Australian Open semifinals at 19. Add in some career-building wins by a slew of other young names — Donna Vekic, Yulia Putintseva, Daria Gavrilova, Genie Bouchard, Taylor Townsend and Lauren Davis — and the next generation is loaded with interesting names who are, I must say, pretty fun to talk to.
5. Stanislas Wawrinka forgets he’s Stanislas Wawrinka: He’s long carried a reputation for being soft on the big stage, but for five hours, Wawrinka stood toe-to-toe with Novak Djokovic in an electrifying fourth-round match at the Australian Open — the match of the year so far. Wawrinka took the court full of belief that he could knock off the No. 1 and unleashed a brutal attack that included a signature one-handed backhand more violent in its follow-through than graceful, and it left Djokovic in fits. It was a performance that recalled that of Lukas “the Nadal Slayer” Rosol at Wimbledon and made you wish that more of these guys would take it to the Big Four consistently. In the end, he lost 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10. Wawrinka lay low for a while but then upset Murray 6-1, 6-2 in Monte Carlo on Thursday.
6. Agnieszka Radwanska’s Shot of the Year: In six months when we’re all doing our “Best of 2013″ wrap-ups, this effort from Radwanska will be tough to beat for shot of the year:
7. The Juan and only pulls off back-to-back stunners in the desert: Of the players outside of the Big Four, Juan Martin del Potro is the most exciting guy to have in the mix. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been in the mix too often at big tournaments since his wrist injury, which is why his back-to-back comeback wins over Murray and Djokovic in Indian Wells felt so significant. Here’s hoping that form holds for the rest of the year.
8. Bernard Tomic runs his mouth Down Under: To quote Omar from The Wire (is it still cool to quote The Wire?), “You come at the King, you best not miss.” The 20-year-old Tomic beats Djokovic in an exhibition match, wins an ATP 250 in Sydney and then has the cojones to cast doubt on Federer’s ability to make the third round of the Aussie Open. Tomic, to his credit, played incredibly well in his straight-set loss to the Swiss great, but his Aussie Open will be remembered for his guileless moxie. The BernieCoaster is a queasy ride, but it’s a fun one.
9. Victoria Azarenka gets the better of Serena in Doha: It’s not a rivalry unless you win a few, and Azarenka scored a much-needed victory over Williams in the Doha final. Serena wasn’t at her best, but that’s not the point. The next time these two meet, especially on a hard court, Azarenka will have belief. I’m already looking forward to the rematch.
10. Bozo goes Beast Mode: The one thing the Americans needed in their Davis Cup quarterfinal against Serbia was the one thing everyone thought they could count on: a doubles win for Bob and Mike Bryan. No one gave the makeshift team of slumping doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic and barely-a-journeyman Ilija Bozoljac, ranked outside the top 300 in doubles and singles, a chance. But there was Bozoljac playing out of his mind in a five-set win that left everyone shaking their heads and tipping their caps. From clown to beast. That is Davis Cup.
11. Nadal’s first earthquake: He was on a massage table when the 4.7-magnitude earthquake shook the Coachella Valley during the BNP Paribas Open. “I was very scared,” Nadal said. Everyone in the press room laughed. Nadal didn’t.
12. Maria Sharapova gets “steamy:“ Reticent to talk about her private life in the past, Sharapova seems to be enjoying the intrigue surrounding her rumored-but-might-as-well-be-confirmed dating relationship with ATP pro Grigor Dimitrov.
13. Ernests Gulbis realizes he’s too talented to play poorly: Seriously, there’s no reason the Latvian should be ranked outside the top 30, let alone the top 100, but that’s where he started the year. With a ranking too low to get into the main draw of the first major of the year, Gulbis skipped the Australian swing and stayed in Europe to train and play on the Challenger circuit. When he lost to 234th-ranked Michal Przysiezny in the first round of a Challenger in Italy, enough was enough. Since then he’s gone 18-4, with only one loss to a player ranked outside the top 10. That’s an incredible turnaround.
14. Jelena Jankovic finds her mojo … and a monkey: Just when you want to forget about her, Jankovic simply will not let you. She ended the first quarter on a surge after winning Bogota and making the semifinals in Miami and the final of Charleston. An entertainer at heart, she soaks up the spotlight. She also gave us the best photo of the year so far:
15. The Australian Open sets the bar for digital and online content: How do you fight back against a lack of tradition and history? By embracing the future. Within the last few years the tournament that’s often considered the red-headed stepchild of the majors has done an incredible job of rebranding itself and welcoming fans into the unique Melbourne experience by embracing social media and online content. With its free YouTube streams of qualifying rounds and the quick turnaround of match highlights, it’s become the most fan friendly of all the Slams. And with its commitment to increased prize money that puts the other Slams to shame, the Australian Open is arguably the most player friendly as well.
16. Wozilroy still going strong: Seeing Rory McIlroy tweet pictures of himself in front of his laptop in the middle of the night watching Caroline Wozniacki on a fuzzy illegal stream is sweet. They’ve embraced their status as a sports-celebrity couple, even in the face of unfair criticism about the effect of their relationship on their slumping games. Leave them alone.
17. Marion Bartoli finally cuts the cord: Or at least she’s trying to. When Bartoli finally announced in February that she would be splitting with her father-coach, Walter and entertaining partnerships with Amelie Mauresmo and Jana Novotna, it was welcome news. How it pans out remains to be seen, as her forays with Novotna and Gerald Bremond died on the vine, and she’s back to being coach-less with her father back in the mix.
18. Federer gets hot under the collar: Both guys played it down, but when Federer dropped an f-bomb in Murray’s direction during their Australian Open semifinal, I clapped. I love seeing the preternaturally cool Federer get peeved. It makes him … human.
19. Andrea Petkovic keeps her sense of humor: Not everyone could crack a joke after her string of poor injury luck. Then again, not everyone is Andrea Petkovic.
Eating cake and watching Interpol concert on TV. Hospital isn't too bad after all. And lips and botox face turned out fine btw.—
Andrea Petkovic (@andreapetkovic) January 04, 2013
20. This match-point save: Sure, it was at Hopman Cup, an exhibition event in January, but Tomic and young Ashleigh Barty had the match-point save of the year so far.
21. This match-point conversion: How do you do this after five hours? How?
22. ‘HOW MANY TIMES???:’ The gift that is Jerzy Janowicz and his unpredictable temper went viral as he melts down in the Aussie heat.
23. Martina Navratilova stopped by Portlandia: Loved it so much I want to put a bird on it.