12/18/2012 3:00:00 PM
In many ways, the 2012 campaign among the men in the world of tennis was the best we have celebrated in a good long while. For the first time since 2003, the men’s Grand Slam championships were ruled by different players; fittingly, the victors at those majors were the four top ranked players in the sport. Novak Djokovic defended his crown at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal claimed a men’s record seventh title at Roland Garros, Roger Federer tied Pete Sampras’s modern record with a seventh triumphant run on the lawns of the All England Club, and Great Britain’s Andy Murray stepped forward emphatically to collect a long awaited first major championship on the hard courts at the U.S. Open. Those four outstanding competitors took tennis to staggering heights, kept raising the stakes wherever and whenever they confronted each other, and inspired us enormously with their spectacular play and unshakable spirit.
It was a terrific year across the board for those towering champions and for the game itself, from beginning to end, on every surface and setting, in every conceivable way. I welcome you to the 2012 Flink Awards for the men.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
No reasonable authority would make a case for anyone other than Djokovic as the best player in the world for the year. He was, after all, the only man to appear in three Grand Slam tournament singles finals, the only player to travel to the semifinals or beyond at every major, and the individual who set the highest standards of consistency from the start of the year right up through the end. He was clearly a candidate for this award. Federer secured the game’s most prestigious prize on the grass at Wimbledon, making a case for himself in this category. But the way I look at, the Player of the Year is neither of those distinguished gentlemen; unequivocally, it is Andy Murray.
At long last, the 25-year-old stepped into the rarified atmosphere occupied only by the elite. Murray was beaten for the fourth time in a major final when Federer ousted him at Wimbledon, but then this diversified player at last did himself justice. He went back to the All England Club and upended Federer in a straight set final to take the gold medal at the Olympic Games. That crucial victory set the stage for Murray to garner his first Grand Slam title. In the final of the U.S. Open, he withstood a spirited comeback from Djokovic in the final. The Serbian rallied courageously from two sets down to force a fifth set, but Murray refused to buckle, coming away deservedly with a 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 triumph over the defending champion.
Murray was guided ably to that crown and others by his studious and insightful coach Ivan Lendl, who had endured the same pattern of disappointment as Murray back in his time. Lendl, of course, lost four major finals himself (two at the hands of Jimmy Connors, one to Bjorn Borg, the other against Mats Wilander) in the early eighties, but thereafter captured eight majors and rewrote the story of his career. Murray is surely on his way to winning at least four more majors. Be that as it may, in my book he was irrefutably Player of the Year in 2012 because his breakthrough was so substantial, his impact so far reaching, his resilience so laudable. Not since Fred Perry was victorious at Forest Hills in 1936 had a British man secured a major singles title.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
I gave serious consideration for this award to the remarkable American Brian Baker, who had been ranked second in the world among the juniors in 2003 before turning professional. But between 2005 and 2008, he had no fewer than five surgeries, three on his hips. After coaching his college team at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, he played five tournaments in 2011 and finished the year at No. 456 in the world on the ATP computer. In 2012, Baker was a finalist at Nice on the clay and made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon after qualifying for both events. He concluded the year at No. 61 in the world, which was no mean feat. At 34, Tommy Haas enjoyed a sparkling campaign, rising from No. 205 at the start of the year all the way back to No. 21 at the end of the season. That was a remarkable comeback for a man who stood at No. 2 on the planet in May of 2002.
But my selection of the Comeback Player of the Year goes to Roger Federer. After capturing the 2010 Australian Open for his 16th major, Federer remained in the forefront of the game but did not win any of the next nine Grand Slam events, and in that span he advanced to only one “ Big Four” final. Moreover, after finishing a sterling 2009 season at No. 1 in the world, Federer had concluded 2010 at No. 2 behind Nadal and had then slipped to No. 3 at the end of 2011 behind Djokovic and Nadal. To be sure, he remained formidable in every way, as professional as ever, a superb athlete with an enduring and insatiable appetite to compete at the highest levels of the game.
In the latter stages of 2011, Federer set the stage for a majestic 2012, winning three indoor events. And yet, the Swiss perfectionist suffered a semifinal loss to Nadal at the 2012 Australian Open and bowed out in the penultimate round again at the French Open against Djokovic. He had lost in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon two years in a row, but Federer was magnificent at the end of the most important fortnight in tennis, stopping Djokovic and Murray back to back in four set matches to grab his seventh title. Federer answered his critics directly with those dazzling performances. Not only did he tie Sampras’s modern record of seven titles at the shrine of tennis, but he soon passed the American for most weeks ever at No. 1 in the world. He would spend 16 weeks at No. 1 in 2012 to raise his career total to 302 weeks at the top. He concluded the year at No. 2 behind Djokovic, making the Swiss the oldest to finish at No. 2 since Agassi in 2002.
Consider the fundamental fact that Federer had to account for both Murray and Djokovic to record his 17th major championship victory. Remember that it took a concerted effort from the Swiss to reclaim the No. 1 ranking after Wimbledon until the end of October. Realize what he was up against as he turned 31 in August. In my judgment, all of that makes Roger Federer the Comeback Player of the Year for 2012—without hesitation.
SPORSTSMAN OF THE YEAR
Surely I will raise a few eyebrows with this choice. It is not Federer, a man ever gracious in victory yet too often unable to give opponents the praise they deserve when he suffers a defeat. It is not that perennially fine sportsman Nadal. I tip my hat this year to Novak Djokovic, who has transformed not only his game across the last couple of years, but also has learned to handle wins and losses with an equanimity that in his younger years he could never have summoned. Djokovic has grown up admirably these last couple of years. He wore his success exceedingly well in 2011, winning three of the four majors, losing only six matches all year long, capturing no less than ten tournaments.
Some would contend that is easy to be gracious when everything is going your way. But Djokovic did not dominate the game in 2012 the way he had so comprehensively the previous season. He defended his Australian Open title but then lost in the finals of the French and U.S. Opens later in the year. He was under considerable duress this past year as he went back to so many places where he had won tournaments in 2011. But he revealed a lot of character in defeat. He was one match away from becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to sweep four majors in a row, but Nadal cut him down in the French Open final. Djokovic took that hard four set setback incredibly well, lauding the Spaniard rather than lamenting his own loss.
At the U.S. Open, Djokovic was even more honorable in defeat. After Murray won the final, the British player stood there for a long moment, utterly stunned and gratified by his achievement. Djokovic did not wait for Murray to approach the net for the formal handshake; he walked over to Murray’s side of the net and hugged him, standing tall at a difficult moment. I liked that a lot. In the press conference a short while later, he was entirely generous in his remarks about Murray.
To be sure, Djokovic remains very demonstrative in victory. He can pound his chest, rip off his shirt, break into victory dances, and so on down the line. Others might think that Djokovic in triumph is over the top, but I believe he now more than balances his self-celebrations with the dignified way he accepts losses. Another revealing Djokovic moment was after the Australian Open final. Djokovic and Nadal had battled for five hours and 53 minutes before the Serbian prevailed. The two players were thoroughly exhausted, drained of energy, stretching out, probably worried they would cramp. There was nowhere for them to sit down at the outset of the presentation ceremony, but finally someone brought two chairs over. Then Djokovic was given a couple of bottles of water. Nadal had his back turned and was unaware about the much needed refreshment being offered to him. Djokovic tapped him gently on the shoulder and handed his opponent one of the bottles.
From my standpoint, there is no doubt that Novak Djokovic was Sportsman of the Year in 2012. He was exemplary. He was classy. He represented himself and the game he plays for a living with sophistication, restraint, and a maturity that was strikingly evident. Djokovic has won legions of new admirers not only with his breathtaking tennis but also due to his growing decency and composure.
WARRIOR OF THE YEAR
In just about any other season, this award would almost automatically belong to Nadal. But, in 2012, a compatriot of Nadal’s must be singled out for his professionalism, durability, competitive mettle, and a capacity to fight nobly through long matches day after day and month after month across the best year yet in his career. At 30, David Ferrer was a showcase performer to a degree he never was before. He won seven singles titles, captured 76 of 91 matches, secured his first Masters 1000 crown indoors in Paris, reached the semifinals of the French and U.S. Opens, and got to the quarterfinals of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. In those four majors, he lost only to the game’s premier players, falling twice to Djokovic, once to Murray and once to Nadal.
Most significantly, Ferrer competed with customary vigor, unrelenting pride, and a heart as large as anyone in his profession. For the second year in a row and the third time in his productive career, David Ferrer finished a season at No. 5 in the world. At 30, Ferrer has never been better. A warrior through and through, a fellow deeply admired by fans in every corner of the globe, a man respected universally by his peers, this 5’9” Spaniard was a gigantic credit to his trade.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Late in the 2012 season, a dynamically talented and immensely versatile player burst into his own at the BNP Paribas Masters indoors at Paris. He qualified for that Masters 1000 tournament and then upended no fewer than five men ranked among the top 20 in the world. Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz toppled Philipp Kohlschreiber, Marin Cilic, Murray, Janko Tipsarevic and Gilles Simon, as diversified a cast of opponents as he could possibly have confronted. In the final of that prestigious event, Janowicz was beaten by the redoubtable Ferrer, but his play all week long was nothing less than stupendous. He is a player of many shades. At 6’8”, the 22-year-old is clearly a big man with a wide range of ambitions.
He moves with astonishing ease for a man of his size, covering the court beautifully. His first serve is a prodigious weapon, and he has an explosive forehand that is a trademark of his times. Off the backhand, his two-hander is somewhat vulnerable, but he can go to the slice naturally off that side. And what sets this man apart more than anything else is his variety off the ground. He drop shots with exquisite touch off both sides, adding a crucial dimension to his ground game with that element. Janowicz has power and finesse, a good temperament, and genuine exuberance on the court.
He commenced 2012 at No. 221 in the world. But largely as a result of his stirring run indoors in Paris, he concluded the season at No. 26. My guess is that he will finish 2013 among the top ten. He has that kind of talent and diversity; he is worthy of that status; he possesses rare gifts. I make him my Most Improved Player of 2012—with absolutely no reservations.
BIGGEST SETBACK OF THE YEAR
This one requires no explanation. Rafael Nadal was in the midst of another potentially great year. He had lost an epic Australian Open final to Djokovic but then had dominated the clay court circuit with typical resolve and panache. The Spaniard was victorious for the eighth year in a row at Monte Carlo and he later claimed the titles in Barcelona and Rome before taking the French Open for the seventh time, setting a men’s record in the process. That was his eleventh career major title. Nadal thus tied Bjorn Borg (1974-81), Pete Sampras (1993-2000), and Federer (2003-2010) as the only men ever to win at least one major title for eight years in a row. He will have the chance to stand alone on that historical platform if he can manage to capture one of the Grand Slam events in 2013.
But the game suffered a substantial blow when Nadal bowed out this year in startling fashion late last June at the All England Club. Lukas Rosol played like a madman—especially in the fifth set—to oust Nadal in one of the biggest upsets ever recorded at a Grand Slam event. Nadal had not lost that early at a major since 2005 at Wimbledon. Rosol brought a 19-32 career match record on court with him for this clash against one of the game’s all-time great players. Nadal had been at least a finalist in his previous five appearances at the shrine of his sport, and he had twice been the champion. But Rosol briefly turned into a player he had never been before and will never be again. Rosol won 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. Only the fifth set was played under the Centre Court roof, and Rosol served unconsciously, with utter abandon, as if he was living out a dream. In his last three service games, he poured in 12 of 13 first serve and released seven aces.
We did not know it then, but Nadal would not appear again in 2012. His year was over after that freakishly brilliant performance from Rosol. Nadal missed the Olympics, the U.S. Open, and everything else down the stretch. The game missed this singularly charismatic performer terribly. The single worst thing that happened to tennis in the year 2012 was the departure of Rafael Nadal. In so many ways, he is indispensable.
UNDERACHIEVER OF THE YEAR
In the early stages of 2012, big John Isner was a revelation. The 6’9” American went to Switzerland to represent the United States in Davis Cup, and struck down Roger Federer, leading the Americans to an unexpected victory. At Indian Wells, he outperformed Djokovic in the clutch to upset the Serbian in the semifinals. In another crucial Davis Cup assignment abroad, he defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as the U.S. moved past France. Isner would move into the top ten in the world. He was enlarging his reputation every step of the way, making a good many seasoned observers believe that he could threaten the best players in the world at any time and perhaps even reach the final of a major. Isner was a major presence on the world stage.
But he was never quite the same player the rest of the year, despite a pair of tournament triumphs over the summer. He did not make it out of the third round at the Grand Slam events, losing five set matches in all four of them. Isner has one of the game’s greatest first and second serves, but during his surge Isner’s return game improved measurably, and the overall quality of his ground game was elevated as well. But Isner simply did not sustain the pace or quality of his early season exploits. He finished 2012 at No. 14 in the world after a disappointing second half of the year. At 27, Isner has clearly arrived at a crossroads. In 2012, after a brilliant run, he faded decidedly at the end of the year, lost faith in himself, and did not become the player we thought he could be. Isner was surely the Underachiever of 2012, but the hope here is that he will make amends in 2013 and rediscover his winning ways.
MATCH OF THE YEAR
This soaring contest inspired us like no other match in 2012. In the final of the Australian Open, on the evening of January 29 and into the early hours of January 30, Nadal and Djokovic produced a masterpiece of a tennis match. Here were the two best players in the world, meeting for the third consecutive time in a Grand Slam tournament final. What a dandy it was! For Nadal, this was a particularly daunting assignment. Djokovic had beaten him six consecutive times in head to head combat, all in final round contests played across 2011. He had defeated the Spaniard on the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami that year before eclipsing Nadal in consecutive clay court finals at Madrid and Rome. Then—back on hard courts—Djokovic had outplayed Nadal in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Nadal's inner shield of confidence was shaken considerably by that string of losses. But here he was in a brand new year, at yet another major final, with the chance to reestablish his authority.
Nadal won a hard fought first set before Djokovic found his range and took the next two sets. They went to a fourth set tie-break, and the Serbian connected impeccably with an inside-out forehand winner to move ahead 5-3. He was two points away from a four set triumph. But Nadal somehow collected four points in a row to salvage the set on sheer willpower. In eight best of five set battles before this one, Nadal and Djokovic had never gone to a fifth set against each other. This was uncharted territory. Nadal seemed on the verge of victory. He moved ahead 4-2, 30-15 in the final set. Djokovic came forward and played a tentative forehand drop volley. The court was open for Nadal to release a backhand passing shot up the line for a winner, but the Spaniard was acutely aware of the score, too conscious of the situation. Djokovic was stranded hopelessly on the other side of the court, but Nadal tried to be more precise than was advisable, and steered that critical shot wide.
An unwavering Djokovic struck back boldly, broke Nadal, and won five of the last six games to prevail 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in five hours and 53 minutes. It was the longest Grand Slam final on record. The most astounding aspect of the match was the tennis played by both competitors in the final hour of the grueling skirmish “Down Under”. The level of play during the latter stages was unimaginably high. Probably the game has never witnessed a display of physicality on both sides of the net as remarkable as this one. In my view, it was clearly among the ten best matches of all time, and plainly the Match of the Year in 2012.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.