Thursday, 29 November 2012

ATP Review: Best Matches of 2012

I have gone into great detail for my WTA choices, but this will just be a quick review looking at some of the best ATP encounters in 2012.  I haven't watched as much ATP tennis so a top 20 list would probably mean that I omit some key matches that I did not happen to watch.  Let's start with the Grand Slams...

The Australian Open
The Australian Open was the Grand Slam that produced the best matches of 2012.  One of the most entertaining matches of the whole year was the second rounder between Andy Murray and Michael Llodra.  Although Murray won comfortably in straight sets, the match was so much fun to watch and featured some extraordinary cat-and-mouse points at the net.  Another highlight was Bernard Tomic's five set win over Alexander Dolgopolov in a slice-and-dice sizzler of a match that was surprisingly and refreshingly great.

The best game from Murray and Llodra's cracking second round match at the Australian Open

The tournament really kicked into gear from the quarter-finals; the best of those was a hard-hitting encounter between Tomas Berdych and Rafael Nadal where Berdych had set points for a two set lead, but eventually succumbed to a 6-7(6), 7-6(6), 6-4, 6-3 loss.  Berdych's powerful flat groundstrokes were sensational for two sets; however Nadal gradually worked his way into the match and was at his tenacious best to make it into the semi-finals.

An incredible rally from the Berdych/Nadal quarter-final

The semi-finals were both fantastic; Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer held a superb contest with some stunning shot making, which Nadal prevailed in four sets, 6-7(5), 6-2, 7-6(5), 6-4.  Federer came out all guns blazing, but Nadal dug his way back as he recreated his come-from-behind performance against Berdych and bettered it with a string of stunning of passing shots helping him on his way. The second semi-final saw Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray contest an truly epic duel, a rollercoaster of ups and downs that saw the momentum swing rapidly from side to side in a dramatic decider

Highlights from the Federer/Nadal semi-final

The final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was a breathless crescendo to what was a fantastic start to the season.  At 5 hours and 53 minutes, it was the longest ever Grand Slam final as both players received plaudits for their incredible stamina.  The pair put on a real show of physical and mental strength, but I think the match was actually overrated in terms of the quality of the tennis, which was scrappy for the first couple of sets.  No doubt a very good match, which burst into the life for the final two sets, but I think the length of this match was intensified by the amount of time that Nadal and Djokovic take between points.

Highlights from the Djokovic/Nadal match

My favourite match of the tournament and in fact, the whole year, was Djokovic and Murray's semi-final.  It was one of the few five setters I have been glued to the screen for its entirety.  Murray broke Djokovic to love when he served for the match at 5-3 in the deciding set and even had a break point at 5-5, which Djokovic extinguished with a cracking forehand down-the-line after another ridiculous rally.  Djokovic would eventually hold and complete an astonishing 6-3, 3-6, 6-7(4), 6-1, 7-5 victory.

Highlights from the Djokovic/Murray semi-final

The French Open
The French Open was rather flat for me this year; the best match on the mens side was the quarter-final between Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  The Frenchman began in lacklustre form as Djokovic waltzed into a 6-1 3-1 lead; however out of nowhere, Tsonga burst to life and found himself in the position to win the match in a titanic fourth set.  He had four match points, but Djokovic saved them with some cracking winners and astonishing defence.  Once Djokovic levelled the match at two sets all, the match was all but over as Tsonga wilted to a 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6(6), 6-1 loss.

Highlights from the Djokovic/Tsonga match

There were a handful of exciting encounters in the early rounds.  Roland Garros saw the rise of David Goffin who played his hero, Roger Federer in the 4th round and had him on the ropes for the first two sets before Federer won through in a tough four setter.  Federer's five set win over Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarter-finals was intriguing too, but they had some much better matches through the course of 2012.

Wimbledon was another historic Grand Slam and like the Australian Open, produced some fabulous contests.  The first week will be remembered for the biggest shock of 2012 with Lukas Rosol's giant slaying of Rafael Nadal in a second round 6-7(9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory.  The final set, which was played under the roof, saw some of the finest attacking tennis you are likely to see from Rosol, who closed the match out in staggering fashion with three aces and a forehand winner.

Highlights from the Nadal/Rosol match

My favourite mens match at Wimbledon this year was the third round match between Roger Federer and Julien Benneteau.  Benneteau was terrific for the first couple of sets with his brand of aggressive tennis completely overwhelming Federer.  Both played their part in a fabulous contest as Federer was two points from following Nadal on the sidelines before eventually turning the match around.  Benneteau seemed to be affected by an injury towards the end... god knows with this guy though because everytime I watch him he seems to be complaining of an injury.

Highlights from the Federer/Benneteau match

In the latter stages of the tournament, the final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray was an obvious highlight.  It was a good match, but not a great match in my eyes.  It may have been that watching as a Murray fan and wanting him to win, the match was rather tainted by the fact he didn't! The post match speech was the most heartfelt and memorable of the year.  I also enjoyed Andy Murray's hard fought quarter-final victory over David Ferrer, which featured some great baseline exchanges.

Highlights from Federer/Murray final

A great rally from the Ferrer/Murray quarter-final

US Open
The mens US Open was missing something this year, but there were some good matches in between the dross.  The final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray was the ultimate definition of a slugfest and signalled the flourishing of a new quality rivalry on tour with Rafael Nadal stuck on the sidelines.  In light of the windy conditions, the pair played a great match on the Arthur Ashe stadium.

Three parter for the Djokovic/Murray highlights... many thanks to all the uploaders on YouTube for all this!

The best match though was the quarter-final between David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic.  I have to admit that I have taken a dislike to Tipsy recently following his comments on his Twitter account, but props to him and Ferrer for putting on some really terrific tennis for four and a half hours.  The final set was a real treat and got what it deserved in a final set tiebreak, which Ferrer won.

Highlights from the Ferrer/Tipsarevic match

Best of the rest:
The Spring American jaunt in Indian Wells and Miami was particularly disappointing for me this year.  The highlights though were John Isner's giant win over Novak Djokovic and the third round match in Miami between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, which saw the American post a magnificent win in what would be their last ever encounter on the ATP tour following Roddick's retirement after the US Open.

Highlights from the Federer/Roddick match

During the warm up tournaments for the French Open, there were a number of stand-out matches such as the stunning final in Barcelona between Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer.  Ferrer played some great tennis and had Nadal on the ropes as he held four set points in a marathon 93-minute first set; however he would once again be second best to Nadal, who was epic on the decisive points.

Highlights from the Nadal/Ferrer match

The women threw up a stinker on the blue clay in Madrid and although the men were quick to complain, spearheaded by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal's early losses, there were some fantastic matches.  The final between Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych was a highly competitive final and had a dramatic finale to boot.  

Federer's first match against Milos Raonic was a really entertaining match too and one that Raonic should have won; Raonic hit more winners and less unforced errors, but was outdone by Federer who picked up his game in a big way after a rusty start following a six week break.  Also, a mention to the match between David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, which concluded with a fascinating third set tiebreak.

Highlights from the Federer/Raonic match

Highlights from the Ferrer/Almagro match

Moving onto Rome, the best match of a tournament was an absolute thriller and one of my favourite matches of the year as Andreas Seppi saved six match points to stun Stanislas Wawrinka across three tiebreak sets.  The rallies were superb, the drama was better and it was made all the more sweet on the incredibly atmospheric Pietriangeli court, which was alive with the Italian home support.

Highlights from Seppi/Wawrinka  

An extra week of grass court tennis for the Olympics was certainly a treat and has wetted the appetite for 2015 when the grass court season will be extended by one week.  The best match for me was the nail biting semi-final between Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro, which saw the Swiss star win a 4 hour-and-28 minute, 3-6, 7-6(5), 19-17 epic.  Del Potro was at his powerful and battering best through stages of this match, but Federer's desire to reach the final shone through in the end; after several failed openings in the decider, Federer finally wrapped it up.   The longest match in terms of games saw Jo-Wilfried Tsonga edge Milos Raonic, 6-3, 3-6, 25-23 in an entertaining serve-dominated clash.

Highlights from Tsonga/Raonic match... a great home video on match point from someone in the crowd!

For the unsung match of the tournament, I would vote for John Isner's 7-5 7-6(14) win over Janko Tipsarevic.  I am not sure if people would have seen this one, but I was watching from the stands and it was a really great match, heightened by the epic second set tiebreak that saw Tipsarevic save six match points before eventually succumbing on a double fault.  Isner's serve was dynamite, but the rallies were long and won rather than lost with a total of 59 winners to just 22 unforced errors in the whole match.

Highlights from Isner/Tipsarevic where the Serb screamed at a young girl running around at the top the stands... I was sat several rows in front!

Andy Murray had a string of good matches too; his rematch with Marcos Baghdatis was very entertaining, but the semi-final win over Novak Djokovic was particularly pleasing.  It was an intense, hard-hitting and tight two-setter, their first ever encounter on the grass and hopefully many more to follow.

As the season wrapped up, Murray and Djokovic's final in Shanghai was certainly memorable.  Djokovic saved five match points in an absolutely titanic, 5-7, 7-6(11), 6-3 win and the best ATP match of 2012 away from the Grand Slams.  The rallies were gripping throughout and the added drama on the big points made this a classic.  Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro also had a number of humdingers in Basel and at the World Tour Finals, both won by Del Potro as he turned the tables on Federer who had previously dominated all of their 2012 matches.

Highlights from Djokovic/Murray 

There were a few good matches at the O2 although no worldbeaters.  The final was excellent and easily, the best match of the tournament as Novak Djokovic came from behind in both sets to claim a 7-6(6), 7-5 victory over Roger Federer.  There were some excellent points, most notably in that first set tiebreak and on match point too.  It was a fitting end to what had been an excellent year of mens tennis.  Roll on 2013...

Highlights from Djokovic/Federer

COMING SOON - Previews and Predictions for the WTA and ATP in 2013 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

WTA Best Matches of 2012: Part 4 5-1

Here is the final countdown of my favourite WTA matches of the year.  If you missed any of the first three parts then the links are belowIt was straightforward to pick my favourite five matches this year, but I had great difficulty in deciding their order... do you agree with my picks?!
Part 1 20-16
Part 2 15-11
Part 3 10-6

5. Tamira Paszek d. Angelique Kerber, 5-7 6-3 7-5 (Eastbourne, Final)
Angelique Kerber
This year's Eastbourne final was an unlikely classic played out between the number 5 seed, Angelique Kerber and the unseeded, Tamira Paszek.  The top three seeds all crashed out on the second day of action, but that did not matter because Paszek and Kerber delivered up the most entertaining final of 2012.  Kerber started the match in fine form, producing some real power on her quirky groundstrokesShe had two break points for a 4-0 lead, but was quickly pegged back to 3-3 by Paszek, who started to find her mark in the match.  Kerber though regained the ascendancy to edge an incredibly high quality first set full of long and pulsating rallies.

Many may have thought that Paszek would wilt after losing the first set, but she picked up her game in a big way arrowing some electric backhands to take a 4-1 lead in the second set.  Kerber had a brief comeback, including a break to love, but Paszek held her nerve to force a decider.  The standard of tennis continued to reach new heights; Kerber got the first break in a titanic fifth game, which saw Paszek produce her very best to save a string of break points.  Paszek also tweaked her ankle, but adrenaline seemed to numb the pain as she battled hard on the brink of defeatKerber earnt three match points at 5-3 40-0, but Paszek saved all three, the first most impressively with a seriously sneaky drop shot and forehand winner combo (see 22:21 in video).  She then saved another two to force Kerber to serve out the match. 

The five wasted match points were still being replayed in Kerber's brain as she lost the next two games and found herself serving to stay in the final.  Kerber saved two match points, but on the third one, went long to hand Paszek her biggest title to date. It was a sensational effort from Paszek who had come from a set and break down in her semi-final with Marion Bartoli.  In total, she had fought for a crazy 5 hours and 50 minutes over her last two matches.  Paszek, who hit 44 winners to Kerber's 41, gave one of the nicest winning speeches of the year and was extremely gracious towards Kerber, who was distraught following the conclusion of the match.  Both would deservely have great runs at Wimbledon...

Highlights from the Paszek/Kerber match

4. Victoria Azarenka d. Sam Stosur, 6-1 4-6 7-6 (5) (US Open, QF)
Sam Stosur
The final of the US Open served up incredible drama, but it was the quarter-final between Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur that was my favourite match from the final Grand Slam of 2012.  It was a rather surprising classic because Azarenka had completely owned Stosur in all of their previous matches with a 6-0 head-to-head and 12 straight sets.  The match began precisely where the last one in Doha had finished as Azarenka started in quite majestic form, bombarding winners past Stosur as she waltzed her way with complete authority to the opening set, 6-1.  You would not have blamed the reigning US Open champion for booking her taxi home after the conclusion of the first set because Azarenka was completely destroying her second serve and had the edge in all their baseline rallies. 

Stosur started the second set with much more gusto and got the early break.  It was quickly wiped out by Azarenka although Stosur was not letting up and did some quite magnificent retrieving to level up at 3-3 (see 6:23 in video).  She then broke for the second time with a down-the-line forehand and held her nerve to take the second set, a first ever against Azarenka.  Back on the Arthur Ashe court where she had her biggest triumph in defeating Serena Williams in 2011, Stosur was reaching those heavy heights once more.  She was absolutely thumping the ball at the beginning of the third set, but Azarenka was playing with an unnerving consistency and won the first break of the set at 3-1.  The pair traded a series of breaks as Stosur continued to thwart Azarenka with some incredible defence and power off her forehand (16:31 in the video below is a great example of Stosur's awesome defence).

The pair were dead level as the match edged towards its conclusion; Stosur had a break point at 5-5 30-40, but Azarenka dismissed it with her first ace of the match.  The pressure-packed third set tiebreak was filled with even more drama that delighted the crowd.  Azarenka raced into a 4-0 lead, but was once again pegged back to 5-5 by the resilient Stosur.  On the next point, a shot from Stosur clipped the net and Vika engineered a delightful drop shot to bring up match point... she converted with a deep forehand forcing Stosur long.  A really tremendous match, full of variety, packed with winner-producing rallies and drama to the end.  The match saw 66 winners and 56 unforced errors with Stosur topping the scales on both counts.  This was the best match that Stosur played all year, which tells you how well Azarenka played to earn her spot in the semi-final.  

Highlights from the Azarenka/Stosur match

3. Victoria Azarenka d. Angelique Kerber, 6-7 (11) 7-6 (2) 6-4 (Istanbul, RR)
Victoria Azarenka
Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber are the two most featured players in my countdown and their pinnacle match of 2012 was against each other in a round-robin match in Istanbul.  The Year-Ending-Championships (YEC) were another triumph in front of the vast and appreciative Turkish crowd;  following a dour opening day, this match kicked the tournament into gear on the second day.  Both started in fine form setting the tune for the rest of the match ahead; Kerber got an early break, but was quickly pegged back by Azarenka.  It was such a terrific opening set full of pulsating rallies with both walloping the ball away for winners.  It went to a tiebreak where both had their chances to close out the opening set. 

Azarenka led 6-2, but was undone by Kerber's demanding defence, which saw her play a horrendous drop shot into the bottom of the net.  It is hard to pick out an individual rally because they were all of an extremely high standard but the one at 9:15 in the first video was certainly a highlight. After saving six set points, it was Kerber who edged the opening set.  The match saw a lot of aggressive hitting and somewhat surprisingly, it was Kerber who hit the most winners throughout (49 to Azarenka's 45)Azarenka started the second set with much more intent, but lost her early break and found herself staring defeat in the face.  At 4-4, they played out an epic nine deuce-game where Kerber produced some inspired serving on the decisive points to frustrate Azarenka.  Kerber held and then brought up two match points in the next game.  Azarenka though showed what she was made off with four cracking shots to keep the match alive.  

Azarenka's aggressive and consistent striking finally dented a hole in Kerber's defence and she eased through the second set tiebreak to give this match a thoroughly deserved third set.  Azarenka quickly grabbed hold of the early break, but Kerber was not going to let this one go without a fight.  She broke back and once again saved her best tennis for the break points as she produced a quite marvellous backhand at 3-4 after another punishing rally (see 10:28 in the 2nd video).  Azarenka would eventually get the break and despite Kerber breaking straight back, she sealed the match with a forehand winner and an almighty fist-pumping celebration.  Some of her wins this year were quite remarkable and she showed what significant strides she has made this year with her mental toughness.  A quite unbelievable match lasting 3 hours and 6 minutes; I cannot wait to see these two face off again in 2013 because its bound to be fun... 

Highlights from the Azarenka/Kerber match 

2. Maria Sharapova d. Sam Stosur, 6-7 (5) 7-6 (5) 7-5 (Stuttgart, QF)
Maria Sharapova
The runner-up in my countdown goes to the most intense match of the year, an epic 3 hour and 1 minute quarter-final between Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur in Stuttgart.  Stosur had breathed life into their one-sided head-to-head with a first ever victory over Sharapova at the end of 2011 in Istanbul.  Sharapova, who had famously described herself as a "cow on ice" on the clay, had made incredible improvements on the surface and demonstrated that during this match.  The match started as it would proceed with Sharapova smashing a forehand return past Stosur on the first point before the Aussie held serve to 15 in the first gameThe whole encounter was characterised by high quality hard hitting and the serving was akin to a mens match.  It was exceptionally tight all throughout the first set with no breaks of serve...  

In the tiebreak, it was Stosur who was the more aggressive and made great use of her tricky slice to unsettle Sharapova as she edged it 7-5.  The intense hitting continued into another epic set of tennisStosur gained the first break of the match to lead 7-6 4-3 and would find herself with a match point in the next game.  However Sharapova stood tall with a fantastic backhand that forced Stosur into the net.  You did not get a sense of a choke from Stosur, but more Sharapova upping her level and demanding herself that she break back, and that she did as the match sauntered into another tiebreak.  It was close once more as Stosur hit a delightful backhand down-the-line to level it up at 5-5, but it was Sharapova who powered through the next two points to force a decider.

All three sets were brilliant, but I think the best tennis was seen in the decider.  There were some absolutely thumping returns and the high pace to the match made it very enjoyable to watch.  The pair remained on serve and played out the point of the match (15:43 in the video) as Sharapova produced some exceptional defence before clinging onto a forehand that somehow found the line.  Sharapova was totally pumped up for this match; she had her chances, but finally claimed only the third break of the match at 5-5 in the decider.  She then closed out with tremendous authority with a forehand into the corner, her 43rd winner of the match.  It was a beautifully intense match and one that I believe was crucial for Sharapova's run through the clay court season, which culminated in the French Open title.  I think things would have turned out a lot differently if Stosur had converted on her match point...

Highlights from the Sharapova/Stosur match

1. Tamira Paszek d. Caroline Wozniacki  5-7 7-6 (4) 6-4 (Wimbledon, R1)
Tamira Paszek
My favourite match of the year was the first round encounter between Caroline Wozniacki and Tamira Paszek at Wimbledon.  At 3 hours and 12 minutes, this epic had literally everything you could ask for in a great tennis match; drama in abundance, two players going for their shots (yes, Wozniacki included) and pulsating rallies.  Wozniacki had selected the short straw by coming up against Paszek, who was one of the most dangerous floaters in the draw having just won the title in Eastbourne.  However Wozniacki began in inspired form as she turned defence into attack racing into a 2-0 lead.  The match was scheduled last on Centre Court and was halted midway through the set because of the rain.  

It recommenced the following day under the roof where Paszek rediscovered her thunderous backhand that had helped her beat Angelique Kerber in the Eastbourne final just a few days ago.  Paszek found herself with two set points at 5-4 40-15, but Wozniacki delivered some of her finest tennis.  She hit a killer down-the-line forehand and then ran a mile before finishing off with a brilliant backhand (2:04 in the video).  Wozniacki had turned the match on its head to take the first set.  The second set was probably the most dramatic and entertaining of the whole year.  Twice Wozniacki fashioned an early break, but both times Paszek came back as she dominated some fabulous lengthy exchanges.  The game at 2-1 was particularly impressive (see 8:21 in the video where Wozniacki plays an amazing point).  Paszek levelled up but Wozniacki had found some tremendous rhythm on her serve and was puttting the  pressure right back on the Austrian.  Wozniacki earnt two match points at 5-6 15-40 but the match was nowhere near over yetWozniacki looked to have it on an all-or-nothing backhand, but Paszek clung on with a backhand and then doubled up the saves with another terrific backhand.  

The tiebreak concluded an outstanding set and it was Paszek who claimed the mini-break with the biggest forehand of the day before sealing the tiebreak.  There was a slight lull in proceedings with Wozniacki taking advantage of a mental breather from Paszek to lead 2-0.  Paszek though came fighting straight back to hold and then at 3-4 30-40, played perhaps her best point of the match as she took a leaf out of Wozniacki's book by turning defence into exceptional attack to finish with a bullet of a forehand (see 18:34 in the video).  Wozniacki had crept into her shell in the third set, but out of nowhere, raised her aggression once more with a truly sensational game to break Paszek when serving for the match.  However the Dane could not recreate the same pace in the next game as Paszek started banging winners and had two match points at 4-5 15-40.  She needed just one as she hit a fearless down-the-line forehand to claim an incredible win.   

Paszeks' character and heart throughout the grass court season was quite phenomenal.  The last three matches she had played (including this one) had seen her battle for over nine hours.  Wozniacki will have been very disheartened by the loss, but she actually played a really great match.  She was just beaten by an inspired opponent, who had that bit more firepower from the back of the court, as Paszek's 54 winners outweighed Wozniacki's 31.  Although it was tough to call between the top three, this match just had it all and that little bit more excitement with incredible shotmaking on the crucial points.

Highlights from the Paszek/Wozniacki match

I really hope you enjoyed my countdown of the top matches on the WTA tour in 2012. Please feel free to leave comments with YOUR favourite matches of this year.  I will be doing a quick round-up of my favourite ATP matches before focusing on my previews for 2013!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

WTA Best Matches of 2012: Part 3 10-6

Here is part three of the countdown of my favourite WTA matches of the year.  If you missed out on either of the first two parts then you can click on the links below:
Part 1 20-16
Part 2 15-11 

10. Maria Sharapova d. Petra Kvitova, 6-2 3-6 6-4 (Australian Open, SF)
This year's Australian Open semi-finals were particularly significant because they were the first since the 2006 US Open that both went to three sets.  I have chosen the second of those semis between Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova to kick off my top 10.  The statistics do not make this match stand out, but it was the intensity and the quality of the hitting that has made me rank it so high.  Anything that was hit short in this match was gobbled up for breakfast and destroyed for a winner.  There was a lot on the line for both players in this match because the number one spot was up for grabs.  Sharapova and Kvitova split the first two sets down the middle; Sharapova was superb in the first set and played close to her best with the cross-court backhand doing all the damage.  Kvitova cut down the unforced errors to deservedly take the second set as she hit 14 winners to 9 unforced errors and served it out with a convincing ace.  

The final set was one of the most intense and gripping of the year.  Kvitova had grabbed hold of the momentum and was the clear front runner in the third set.  She had break points in several of Sharapova's service games, but the Russian’s grittiness and fighting instinct that has made her so tough to beat, came alive once more.  There was an incredible rally at 2-2 30-40 where Sharapova fought for her life (9:01 in the video).  Sharapova managed to hold to 5-4 and after resisting all that pressure, Kvitova folded.  It was a really disappointing ending to what was a fantastic match.  It did kind of signal what was to follow for Kvitova who despite some consistent results, would not beat a top 10 player until August.  I think this semi-final was a big one for Kvitova, whose confidence against the big players was certainly jolted. 

Highlights from the Kvitova/Sharapova match

9. Serena Williams d. Yaroslava Shvedova, 6-1 2-6 7-5 (Wimbledon, R4)
It is now time for one of my more obscure picks, which is the 4th round match between Serena Williams and Yaroslava Shvedova at Wimbledon.  I did not watch this match live as I was on number one court at the time, but having watched the highlights of this match, I had no doubt it deserved a place in my top 10.  Shvedova had gone off-the-radar in the last couple of years because of injuries, but she burst back on the tour in 2012, reaching the quarter-finals of Roland Garros after knocking out the defending champion, Li Na.  She didn't do much wrong in the opening set of this encounter as Serena was unstoppable.  She won the first set, 6-1 and looked to be heading to a comfortable win.  Shvedova though, managed to draw on her rediscovered depths of confidence and win the second set.  When on her game, she is one of the cleanest and most fearless ball strikers on tour.  She found some rhythm on her serve, which gave her the chance to make more inroads on the Serena serve. 

The final set was just terrific tennis.  Both were being stretched all over the court and Serena's movement for the majority was exceptional.  Serena put a lot of pressure on Shvedova, but the Kazakh was in the zone and dug out of several holes, most notably at 4-4 0-40 with some brilliant winners.  Towards the end, the rain became a factor as Shvedova took off her customary glasses, which are prescription glasses for a nervous tic in one eye; this proved to go against her.  Serena got the all important break to lead 6-5, but still had to fight hard in a wonderful final game.  Serena brought up match point with an incredible lob, which she then duly converted.  Both players finished with excellent stats as Serena hit 35 winners to 11 unforced errors, meanwhile Shvedova was still extremely respectable with 24 winners to 20 unforced errors.  This match may have been forgotten in amongst the excitement of Magic Monday, but it deserves to be remembered as one of the best matches of 2012...

Highlights from the Serena/Shvedova match

8. Victoria Azarenka d. Mona Barthel, 6-4 6-7(3) 7-5 (Stuttgart, QF)
Aside from the UK events at Eastbourne and Wimbledon, my favourite tournament of the year was the Premier event in Stuttgart.  Quarter-final day in Stuttgart was one of the finest days of women's tennis in 2012; this match between Victoria Azarenka and Mona Barthel is the first of two quarter-finals to feature in my top ten.  Barthel burst onto the scene in Hobart, coming through qualifying and beating four top 50 players on the way to the title.  She was inches away from beating Azarenka in Indian Wells so the Belarusian was wary of the threat.  The rollercoaster first set saw five breaks and both had leads, but it was Azarenka who was better on the decisive points to take it 6-4.  Azarenka remained in control in the second set as she went up an early break, but Barthel kept fighting with this silent and deceptive steel to her character.  She made a big hold to stop Azarenka going a double break up and then broke back to 3-3.  Barthel is a joy to watch at times and can hit winners for fun, 62 in this match to be exact.

Towards the end of the second set, Barthel dug deep to save several break points that would have given Azarenka the chance to serve for the match.  Barthel, backed by a growingly appreciative crowd, forced a tiebreak, which she dominated and duly took at the expense of a wasteful error from Azarenka. The final set, once again, saw many shifts in momentum as Barthel's unpredictablity and lack of rhythm kept Azarenka on her toes.  The match was so intriguing because you really did not know what was coming next.  Barthel had a massive hold at 4-5, which included saving a match point, but unfortunately she could not replicate it at 5-6 as she was broken to love and rather limply and out-of-sync with the whole match, double faulted on match point.  Nevertheless, this was a very high quality match dominated by powerful winners and Barthel will have felt disappointed not to have won the match.  Azarenka played an extremely consistent match and demonstrated her worth as the world number one.

Highlights from the Azarenka/Barthel match 

7. Angelique Kerber d. Sabine Lisicki, 6-3 6-7(7) 7-5 (Wimbledon, QF) 
Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki's all-German Centre Court duel was a fascinating match worthy of gracing the finest stage in tennis.  The prospects were good before the match had begun; Kerber had dismantled Kim Clijsters in the 4th round in her last ever Wimbledon appearance, meanwhile Lisicki's all-out attacking game had ousted the world number one at the time, Maria Sharapova.  Lisicki began the match in error-strewn fashion and despite a mid-set comeback, she double faulted to hand the first set to Kerber, 6-3.  Lisicki looked set for a swift exit at 3-6 0-3, but she managed to dig deep.  She developed more of a game plan with her shots as she found the corners with some powerful hitting.  Kerber remained in control though as she fashioned two match points; however Lisicki, fearless and reckless, produced a stomping backhand winner and then somehow stayed alive with incredible defence and an awkward volley winner.  

The second set went into what became a magnificent tiebreak and a fitting end to a stunning set of tennis.  Lisicki swiped away another match point with a gorgeous backhand winner and then out of nowhere, took the set as Kerber disastrously left a ball that clipped the baseline.  The quality of tennis dipped considerably in the final set, but the action still remained gripping.  Kerber was twice a break up, but her sarcastic attitude on ever error she made, or winner that Lisicki hit was becoming her downfall, most probably a result of having wasted five match points in the Eastbourne Final to Tamira Paszek just a week ago.  Lisicki earnt the chance to serve for it at 5-3, but Kerber suddenly loosened and broke straight back.  The real turning point though was at 4-5 0-15 when Kerber challenged a backhand into the corner that was called out.  Kerber raised her arms in delight as Hawkeye showed the ball to have grazed the line.  The rest was history as Lisicki's wild unforced errors returned and Kerber wrapped up the drama-fuelled match in 2 hours and 30 minutes.


Highlights from the Kerber/Lisicki match

6. Serena Williams d. Virginie Razzano 4-6 7-6(5) 6-3 (French Open, R1)
The most shocking match of the year and the one that had me on the edge of my seat (and at the end, mainly standing) was the first round match at Roland Garros between Serena Williams and Virginie Razzano.  The French Open rather petered out into a tournament of largely uneventful matches; this was the exception.  Serena had been  the heavy favourite to win the title following stellar performances in Charleston and Madrid.  Despite taking the opening set 6-4, it was a shaky opening from Serena who dropped her opening two service games.  The second set went to a tiebreak where Serena was inches away from victory at 5-1.  Serena is regarded as one of the best closer of matches, but she showed both nerves and indecision as she let Razzano back into the match.  She left a ball that was in and collapsed from there as Razzano won the next six points and the second set with it.  Serena was visibly distressed at the changeover and having gone for broke in the second set, then went completely into her shell as Razzano dazzled to a 5-0 lead.  As Razzano tried to close it out, she started to suffer from calf cramps... more drama? You betcha ;-)

In a race against time to close the match, something akin to an action thriller, Razzano started to realise the magnitude of the situation.  The calf cramps intensified as she was called for hindrance twice as she squealed with pain during rallies.  The first one OK, but how can you give point penalties when Sharapova/Azarenka do it on every point?! Serena, still play dire, clawed her way back to 5-3.  It would all come to a crescendo in an astonishing 23-minute, 12-deuce game that saw match points and break points a-plenty.  Both players produced their ultimate best when down and their ultimate worst when posed with a chance to win the game.  However on the eight match point, a backhand error from Serena gave Razzano the sweetest moment of her career; having lost her husband to a brain tumour last year, it was a richly deserved and touching moment to take place at her home Grand Slam.  This was the first time Serena had ever lost in the first round of a Grand Slam, but she recovered impeccably as she would lose just one more match in 2012.

I couldn't find any good highlights from Serena/Razzano so have a picture ;-)

This weekend - The final part of my series of WTA matches of 2012 as I count down my 5 top matches this year.