Melbourne, Australia, 16 November 2012 |

The year 2012 was a memorable one in the tennis world. On the men’s side, you had the continuing dominance of the Big Four, with the intra-group rivalries reaching another level and yet again enthralling crowds around the world.

It was also a landmark year for the WTA Tour, which after years of controversial No.1s and infuriating inconsistency was bolstered by the emergence of its own dominant group – Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. This trio, all excellent players and with star power to boot, injected some long-missing spice and excitement in the women’s game.

With both tours having wrapped for the year, this Friday we take you back through the last 11 months and review the biggest storylines from a banner year.

10. WTA’s global spread
For the first time in the WTA Championships’ 42-year history, all eight finalists – Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Sara Errani and Li Na – hailed from different countries. The WTA pointed to this as a sign of the tour’s global reach, and that indeed seems to be the case – in May 2012, for just the second time, the WTA Top 10 comprised members all from different nations (the WTA Champs finalists minus Errani, plus Sam Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli). After years of dominance by American players, and later the Russian Revolution of the 2000s, these statistics point to the game’s health worldwide.
Istanbul finalists

9. Australian Open 2012 men’s final
At the other end of the season, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal began 2012 in style with a match for the ages in the Australian Open men’s final. The pair produced a glorious slug-fest for almost six hours, taking the sport to unprecedented levels of physicality, shotmaking and fitness. Djokovic’s win capped an extraordinary 12 months in which he claimed four of the past five Grand Slam titles and established himself as the truly dominant world No.1 of the sport.

8. Emergence of Azarenka
At the same time Djokovic was consolidating his reign atop the tennis rankings in Australia, Victoria Azarenka was just beginning hers. After winning the title in Sydney, the Belarusian slashed her way through the draw at Melbourne Park, destroying Sharapova in the final and taking her place as the new women’s world No.1. But her run didn’t stop there. Azarenka built a 26-match winning streak – the best start to a season since Martina Hingis in 1997 – that included her third and fourth titles in Doha and Indian Wells. After a dip during the claycourt season, she was back, reaching the semis of Wimbledon, coming within a couple of points of upsetting Serena for the US Open title, and winning the prestigious China Open. Her confidence, intensity and drive have breathed new life into the WTA Tour.
Victoria Azarenka

7. Rafa’s seventh Roland Garros crown
Despite losing that heart-breaker in Melbourne, Nadal reasserted his dominance in typical fashion once the tour turned to clay. Sweeping titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, the Spaniard came into the French Open looking to win a record-breaking seventh title, moving him one ahead of claycourt great Bjorn Borg. Despite the pressure of absolute favouritism, he delivered, not dropping a set on his path to the final and then exacting revenge on Djokovic with an exciting four-set win in the title match.

6. Roddick and Clijsters say goodbye
In an eventful US Open, former Grand Slam champions and world No.1s Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters retired from the sport that had brought them so much success. The world already knew of Clijsters’ decision to hang up her racquet following one last visit to Flushing Meadows – by far her most successful Grand Slam tournament – but not many were prepared for her second-round upset loss to British teen Laura Robson. Around the same time Roddick called a snap press conference to announce the US Open would be his last event, and cut an emotional swathe through the draw before falling to Juan Martin del Potro in round four. Within a matter of days, tennis had bid farewell to two of its most popular champions.
Kim Clijsters

Andy Roddick

5. Big Four share the spoils
After years of dominance by the Big Four on the ATP Tour – and often by one player, as evidenced by Federer’s 2004-2007, Nadal’s 2010 and Djokovic’s 2011 seasons – parity finally reigned. Granted, the Big Four of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray again elevated themselves above the rest, but for the first time since 2003, the sport’s four major titles were shared among four players. Djokovic’s Australian triumph and Nadal’s win in Paris were followed by Federer’s victory at Wimbledon and Murray’s first Grand Slam title in New York. These results have set the stage for a thrilling 2013.

4. Sharapova completes career Grand Slam
Most thought her severe shoulder injury and subsequent surgery would prevent her from scaling her former heights. Almost everybody, in fact, except Maria Sharapova herself. After years of serving troubles, disappointing losses and, when she finally did perform well at Grand Slam level again, some demoralising finals defeats, the Russian proved the pundits wrong with her victory at Roland Garros. The fact that her fourth Grand Slam title came on a surface that nobody ever expected her to excel on made the achievement even more noteworthy. After dominating the 2012 clay court swing with titles in Stuttgart, Rome and finally Paris, her French Open trophy joined her prizes from Wimbledon 2004, US Open 2006 and Australian Open 2008.
Maria Sharapova

3. Serena’s stunning comeback
Just 18 months ago, Williams lay in a hospital bed with life-threatening blood clots in her lungs, not sure if she would even survive, let alone play tennis again. By the end of 2012, she had established herself as the most dominant female player on the planet. Possibly ever. In an extraordinary rise, Williams shrugged off indifferent form in the first half of the season to completely dominate the field, scooping her 14th and 15th major titles at Wimbledon and the US Open – with Olympic gold in London sandwiched in between – and capped her year with a win at the WTA Championships in Istanbul. Possibly her most impressive stat was her winning record over her rivals, most notably a combined 8-0 record against top-ranked pair Azarenka and Sharapova.
Serena Williams

2. Roger returns to No.1
He owned almost every tennis record in the book. Except one. Roger Federer had fallen a painful one week shy of Pete Sampras’ record mark of 286 collective weeks as the world No.1, and with the rise of the younger Nadal and Djokovic, it seemed Federer’s best chance of re-writing that record had passed him by. But the Swiss continue to chip away at his rivals’ lead in the points tally – helped by claiming seven titles within the previous 12 months – and by the time he arrived at his beloved Wimbledon, a return to No.1 was an outcome within reach. With this goal in sight, Federer romped to the title, upending Murray in four sets and supplanting Djokovic as the world’s top player. He subsequently equalled and surpassed Sampras’ record, and by mid-October, was celebrating his 300th week as world No.1.
Roger Federer

1. Murray finally triumphs on the big stage
So often the bridesmaid in big matches, Murray continued that trend in 2012 when he lost his fourth straight Grand Slam final at Wimbledon to Federer. Would the Scot ever break the duck and win his first major title? We got a clue thanks to his performance at the London Olympics, where, playing with the pressure of rampant hometown expectation, he reversed the Wimbledon result with a stunning straight-set defeat of Federer in the five-set gold medal match. Instilled with confidence, Murray arrived at his favourite Grand Slam at the US Open, and proceeded to back up that gold-medal performance with a thrilling five-set defeat of Djokovic in the title match at Flushing Meadows. His victory – which lifted an incredible weight from his shoulders – ended a 76-year drought of male British Grand Slam champions.

For that achievement, Murray’s winning performances get the nod for our biggest storyline of 2012.