12 for '12: Most Improved Players

by: Peter Bodo | December 05, 2012

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Peter Bodo continues his year-end awards—12 in all, for 2012—with the year's Most Improved Players. You can see rest of his selections as well as the upcoming awards at the end of this article.

Women's: Sara Errani

How much difference can an inch make? For Errani, it was the difference between earning $414,126 (in 2011) and 2012’s prize haul of $2,181,948. The difference between a year-end ranking of No. 45 (2011) and this year’s No. 6. The difference between losing in the second round of the French Open to Daniela Hantuchova, 6-1, 6-2, (2011) and picking up runner-up hardware there after falling to career Grand Slammer Maria Sharapova in 2012.

It isn’t like Errani grew an extra inch, either. She’s still a decidedly diminutive 5’4 ½“ (she insists on that half-inch in her bio; this is a 25-year-old who knows the value of a few centimeters). That extra inch was built into the racquet she began using this year, after having bought out her former racquet contract for a hefty $30,000. As she joked, “I either got a longer arm or a longer racquet.”

Errani believes that the extra inch in racquet length gives her more power, or a no less important sense that it does. It also provided that greater reach to a player who, even at the worst of times, is a terrific retriever, one of those of whom coaches say, “If she can reach it, she can return it.”

Such hair-splitting is certainly fun, and a lot less controversial than wading into the murky waters of doping, which Errani was unable to avoid after it was revealed that she had worked with Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, the Valencia-based doctor accused of orchestrating a “team-wide doping program” while working for Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service cycling team.

In September, Errani had said that del Moral is “the best doctor in Valencia for everything,” but after he was named by the USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) she renounced him, saying, “His name is not a good name.”

Errani was interviewed by the International Tennis Federation’s own anti-doping people after the del Moral link became public, but ITF spokespersons have said nothing beyond reiterating that if any infractions had taken place, they would be reported to the public.

It’s an unfortunate shadow hanging over Errani’s spectacular, career year. And for all the buzz about that racquet, quantifiable differences like that extra inch fail to convey what everyone who saw Errani play couldn’t help but notice. She played with enormous heart. She was both jack-rabbit quick and pit-bull tough. Her most conspicuous asset seemed to be grit—the willingness to get down in dirty and do whatever it took to win a match.

Much of that intangible improvement consisted of absorbing her opponents’ punches and, while unable to match their power, somehow finding a way to land the final blow. A longer racquet and counter-punching ability didn’t carry Errani to her career year, though. Her legs did.

Errani first declared her intentions at the Australian Open, where she had been a first-round loser in 2011. This year, she made it to the quarterfinals. She won her first title of the year shortly thereafter at Acapulco, but failed to win a match at either of the big hard-court events in the U.S., Indian Wells and Miami.

Errani bounced right back, though, winning the next two events she played, Barcelona and Budapest. That set her up for the highlight of her year, the Grand Slam final she played against Sharapova at Roland Garros. To make the moment sweeter, she and partner Roberta Vinci won the doubles tournament.

If there was a bump in the Italian’s road, it was this odd one: At Wimbledon, a red-hot Yaroslova Shvedova tagged Errani with a historic  “golden set,” winning 24 consecutive points in the course of a 6-0, 6-4 third-round blowout. But Errani sloughed off that slight and remained resilient. She won Palermo and rediscovered her excellent Grand Slam form at the U.S. Open, where she made the semis, losing to Serena Williams. That run helped Errani secure her place in the WTA Championships, by which time she had won more than 100 matches (55-22 in singles, 52-10 in doubles) in 2012. She was one tired, but happy, warrior.

Honorable Mention: Angelique Kerber

She finished the year ranked one spot above Errani (No. 6) after starting out at No. 32. It’s hard to believe that a woman who didn’t get past the first round in the first three Grand Slam events of 2011 hasn’t lost before the third round at a Slam since then, logging two semifinals (Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) and quarterfinal (French Open).

Men's: Andy Murray

Although some ATP pros jumped at least 10, 20, or 50 places in the computer rankings, Andy Murray improved his standing by just one digit. And there’s an excellent chance that he wouldn’t even have accomplished that, were it not for the bad luck that befell Rafael Nadal. Ranked No. 2 at the start of Wimbledon (ahead of No. 3 Roger Federer and No. 4 Murray), the king of clay had to pull the plug on his season after the tournament because of knee problems.

Despite a generally excellent record, Murray had consistently been shut out when his peers in the Top 3 divvied up the Grand Slam titles.  By the start of this year, failures at the peak moments—Murray was a three-time Grand Slam runner-up at the start of 2012—had morphed into the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room during any discussion of the Scot’s career.

You could almost sense that 2012 would be a watershed year for Murray, one way or the other. He made a bold move in January by hiring Ivan Lendl as his coach. Very few players of Lendl’s caliber had ever coached with any degree of commitment; the role is just too subordinate for the alpha dogs of tennis. But the two seemed meant for each other, as like Murray, Lendl had experienced only frustration in his first Grand Slam finals. And here he was, agreeing to coach the 24-year-old who was threatening to become the first player since himself to play four Grand Slam finals without winning one.

Murray played well in Australia, where he’d been runner-up for two straight years, but lost in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic. In Paris, on the clay surface that he likes least, he bowed in the quarterfinals to David Ferrer. The decision to hire Lendl seemed almost desperate when Murray accomplished the feat he wished to avoid: He lost the Wimbledon final to Federer, thereby joining his coach as a four-time Grand Slam runner-up—but never a winner.

No matter how highly his rivals praised Murray, each passing loss made a breakthrough seem less likely.

It’s tough enough to win a Grand Slam title, never mind doing it while carrying all that baggage into a final. Murray was in such a dilemma, but to his good fortune this happened to be an Olympic year. Just weeks after his failure at Wimbledon, Murray eliminated Djokovic and then Federer on the very same Centre Court where they had played the final. Murray won the cherished gold medal (he would also take silver in the mixed doubles with Laura Robson) and his entire nation—or kingdom—roared.

That Olympic result didn’t necessarily look like the game-changer it was as the last Grand Slam of the year got underway in New York. At the U.S. Open, Murray and Lendl were down to their last card, and in the end, both men drew to an inside straight. As Lendl himself had done, Murray broke the hex in his fifth Grand Slam final.

Lendl is known for having an excellent tennis mind that he keeps mostly under wraps. He certainly shaped Murray’s strategic and tactical vision of the game to make it more purposeful—a welcome improvement, given that one of Murray’s weaknesses was a tendency to play it by ear. Murray’s forehand looked especially sharp as the year went on.

But given the extent to which the hump Murray had to get over was a mental one, Lendl’s presence and the force of his personality were an even larger ingredient in his charge’s success. Let me go all armchair psychologist on you here: Lendl, the renowned hard-ass, makes a formidable authority figure—even a father figure. Perhaps Murray, whose parents separated when he was nine and later divorced, really needed a strong male figure in his life—something Lendl was able to provide because, unlike Murray’s previous coaches, he was a superior player and not at all dependent on Murray for his living.

The final irony in this saga is that Lendl—cold, rational, pitiless Ivan—ended up helping to write what is essentially a warm and fuzzy tale of overcoming doubt and repeated frustration. The world remains full of surprises.

Honorable Mention: David Ferrer

His No. 5 ranking is the same as it was at the end of last year, and it’s not even his career-high position (he hit No. 4 back February 2008). But in this his career year, Ferrer finally won his first Masters title and won an ATP tour-best seven tournaments. That is, he “improved” enormously as a big-match player.

12 for '12: Year-End Awards

- Wednesday, November 28: Coaches of the Year
- Thursday, November 29: Doubles Performances of the Year
- Friday, November 30: Tournaments of the Year
- Saturday, December 1: Upsets of the Year
- Sunday, December 2: Quotes of the Year
- Monday, December 3: Feuds of the Year
- Tuesday, December 4: Newcomers of the Year
- Wednesday, December 5: Most Improved Players
- Thursday, December 6: Biggest Disappointments
- Friday, December 7: Comebacks of the Year
- Saturday, December 8: Runner-Ups of the Year
- Sunday, December 9: Stories of the Year

Player of the Year, Men: Novak Djokovic
Player of the Year, Women: Serena Williams

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