Tennis review: Murray, Tsonga, Azarenka set to rise in 2012
Marianne Bevis casts an eye over a selection of players set to make a splash in the 2012 tennis season
The 2011 tennis season has barely sunk over the horizon before the new one rises to welcome Olympic year.
It’s a scant fortnight since the men’s calendar knocked the red dust from its shoes in the Davis Cup final and barely a month since the women heard the last squeak of shoe on rubber in Bali and Moscow but, Christmas or no Christmas, the holiday season is as good as over.
Twitter is a dawn chorus of messages from players packing suitcases for Australia””the first tournament starts on New Year’s Day in Brisbane””or warming-up in Middle Eastern havens for their Australian Open preparation””five of the top six men compete against each other over the last three days of December in Abu Dhabi””or earning wild cards for 2012’s first Grand Slam.
In the last of this series, therefore, it’s time to put the names who made the headlines in 2011 to one side””though many of them will continue to be the headline-makers, the title-winners and the ranking-toppers. Time, in fact, to shine a spotlight on a few who may surge, who may break the stranglehold on the Slams or may cause a few upsets along the way.
Poised for first Grand Slam
The year may have started in disappointment for Murray, losing in the final of the Australian Open for the second successive year.
In 2010, the slump that had followed lasted through to Wimbledon, but in 2011, a poor hard-court spring broke into sunshine on clay. He pushed Rafael Nadal to the limits in the semis of Monte Carlo, despite an elbow injury, and in the Rome semis, he came close to ending Novak Djokovic’s unbroken streak in the match of the tournament.
Next it was the semis at Roland Garros for the first time, a title on the Queen’s grass, and the semis at Wimbledon. Then after shock exit in his first match in Montreal, the season soared.
First he won the Cincinnati Masters title, then made his fourth Grand Slam semi of the year in the US Open and finally took three straight titles in the Far East, including the Shanghai Masters. With 28 wins from 29 matches, he passed Roger Federer in the rankings to reach No3 before a groin injury forced him out of the World Tour Finals.
But what stood out, apart from his outstanding autumn run, was a relaxed confidence that grew throughout the year. Apparently enjoying the informal coaching set-up he has with the Adidas development programme alongside his tried and trusted support team, he seemed to grow a couple of inches and to, well, enjoy himself around the court rather more.
He always talks of working harder, getting fitter, aiming higher, and he has changed his preparation for the 2012 Australian Open””dropping the Hopman Cup in favour of the ATP tournament in Brisbane. There is a sense this time, though, that he has an extra factor””the “˜Djokovic factor'””of self-belief that could take him that one vital step further in Melbourne: his first Grand Slam.
2011 felt like the year that the tall, intelligent and gifted 22-year-old from Belarus would make the final breakthrough. Azarenka has risen through the rankings with each successive year but, despite ending 2011 at a career-high of No3 and three new singles and two doubles titles in her trophy cupboard, she made only one Grand Slam semi-final””though that Wimbledon result was her best Slam finish so far.
Three times she made opening-round exits and seemed beset by niggling injuries: a foot problem forced her out of Beijing and she retired mid-match on no fewer than four other occasions. Another cloud has appeared in Azarenka’s world, too””Petra Kvitova. The Czech woman’s surge included defeats over Azarenka in the semis of Wimbledon and the finals of both Madrid and the WTA Champions.
At her best, Azarenka is a powerful and dangerous player. Her key, aside from injury concerns, is the consistency that comes from confidence and, like Murray, she started to show a strength of purpose in 2011 that may provide the last piece in the Azarenka puzzle. That, and finding a way through the left-hand of Kvitova.
Targeting the top five
If there is one man who has laid down a marker for 2012 success, it is the charismatic Tsonga, who first thrilled fans with his inspired brand of tennis at the Australian Open of 2008.
As recently as May, the Frenchman found himself outside the top 20 but then, having discarded his coach, he flourished. Grass launched him upward with the finals at Queen’s followed by a famous victory over Federer to reach the semi-finals at Wimbledon. With the autumn indoor season came two indoor titles in Metz and Vienna and the final of the Paris Masters.
Then in his first appearance at the World Tour Finals since 2008, his joie-de-vivre style of tennis captivated a very different type of London at the O2. And despite losing to Federer in a three-set final, he ended the year back at No6, his career high spot of 2008.
Tsonga put his end-of-year improvement down to mental consistency and, in London, promised to focus on getting his speed and movement back. In truth, there did not appear to be much wrong with either, so if he does come back faster and more flexible, he will surely be a major threat to the top five in 2012.
She turned pro six years ago, broke the top 50 for the first time in 2008 and won her first two titles in 2010 to briefly break into the top 20, yet the Russian Pavlyuchenkova is still only 20.
The former junior champion of Australia and the US Open, this rising talent has really begun to hit her stride. She ended 2010 as the youngest player in the top 50 and went on to reach her first Major quarter-final in Paris, beating No3 seed Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round.
She went on to lead Schiavone 6-1, 4-1 before losing the second and third sets 7-5 but come the US Open, she turned the tables on the Italian in a two-and-three-quarter-hour win with a powerful and mature baseline game that showed she is an impressive, attacking shot-maker.
Pavlyuchenkova came unstuck against Serena Williams in at Flushing’s quarter-finals after taking the former champion to a 7-5 opening set, and her season fizzled out apart from a quarter-final finish in Beijing. She nevertheless finished the year at No16.
As she goes on to acquire the experience and confidence from such wins and she physically matures, so her rise should accelerate. If she sustains her form to the end of 2012, expect to see her in the top 10 and contesting for a top-five place
Predicting a 2012 surge
Already the youngest junior Australian Open champion””he was 15″”Tomic played his first ATP event in Brisbane in January 2009 and went on, in the same month, to become the youngest man to win an Australian Open senior match.
He would not win another main-draw contest until 12 months later at the same tournament, and his only other ATP win in 2010 came at Queen’s. He went on to qualify for Wimbledon but it was in SW19 this year that Tomic’s huge promise was finally fulfilled””a stunning break-through for the 19-year-old who had won just three main-tour matches in the interim.
In becoming the youngest man since Boris Becker to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals, the big, huge-hitting Aussie gained not only a top-100 ranking but also the kudos of beating Nikolay Davydenko and Robin Soderling, as well as taking a set from Djokovic.
Most of his early-season tournaments were Challengers but, not surprisingly, he played only main-tour events after London. High spots included a defeat of Stan Wawrinka in the Davis Cup playoffs, a quarter-final finish in Tokyo, having beaten Viktor Troicki in two tie-breakers, and beating both Kevin Anderson and Mardy Fish to reach the third round in Shanghai.
So after a rise from No208 to No42 in the space of 12-months and a rapidly-growing tally of top-20 scalps, it looks as though a top-20 ranking of his own beckons the 6ft 4in teenager.
As a teenager, Lisicki peaked at No22 in the rankings in 2009 after winning her first WTA title in Charleston and reaching her first Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon.
But Lisicki managed just four main-tour wins in 2010 and, until she played Miami at the end of March this year, she had won just a single WTA match, but with more matches came more inroads. In Charleston she beat Marion Bartoli, in Stuttgart Na Li, and then she won Birmingham.
From a 179 ranking at the start of the year, Lisicki entered Wimbledon as No62 and beat Bartoli and Li again before falling to Maria Sharapova in the semis. By then, she was the talk of the tournament both for her gutsy fight-back from a set down against Li and her ebullient tennis and personality.
Lisicki maintained good form through the US Open series to win her second 2011 title in Dallas, reach the semis of Stanford and Carlsbad and peak at a career-high ranking of No15 in November. Illness hit her end-of-season but the WTA’s Comeback Player Of The Year has the perfect launch-pad to finally fulfil her powerful, all-court talent in 2012.
Make or break time
In a year that started poorly for Isner, things clicked into place once he hit the hard courts in July, winning his 100th match and his second ATP title at Newport. He went on to reach the Atlanta final and Washington semis before winning another title in Winston-Salem.
Perhaps his most promising result, however, was saved for Paris where he reached not just his first Masters quarter-final but his first semi-final, too, beating fourth seed David Ferrer on the way and taking Tsonga to three very tight sets.
Now 26, Isner finds himself at No18 after first reaching that ranking 18 months ago. It’s been a slow burn for the tall American, but he is one to watch come the fast courts of spring.
Despite 11 titles in her young career, including the French Open in 2008, Ivanovic managed only one in 2011, at the very last moment, on her birthday in Bali.
Although she took a handful of other decent results””two semi-finals in Birmingham and Carlsbad and quarter-finals at two Premier Mandatories””the former No1 has made no impact on the rankings since her post-2008 slump and she ended the year at No22.
And yet, when she plays well, the tall, lovely Ivanovic still impresses. She has recently revealed that she is back with her Australian golf-star partner and has established a new coaching partnership with Nigel Sears, declaring to the Australian Telegraph this week: “This might be the first time I’ve felt good since I became world No1.”
If she can exorcise the demons that accompanied global fame, find the confidence she had in spades as a teenager, and stay injury-free for a 12-month stretch, it is possible, just possible, that Ivanovic is ready to rise to the top once again.
Also featured in the 2011 review: