My favorite tennis stories of 2012
To mark the passing of another eventful year of championships, triumphs and memorable moments, SI.com's writers are remembering the stories they connected to most across the sports landscape in 2012.
• Andy Murray wins Olympic gold and then that elusive first major. On the second Sunday in July, Murray lost in the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer and leaked tears afterward. "I'm getting closer," he said to the Centre Court crowd, as if trying to convince himself. Except that he truly was. On the first Sunday in August -- on the same court, against the same opponent -- Murray won the biggest match of his life, pasting Federer to win the gold medal. A month later, Murray broke through completely, winning the U.S. Open, beating Novak Djokovic in the final and taking his first major title. Britain has its first male Grand Slam singles champion since before World War II. Murray was suddenly a Hall of Famer. And other folks in unlikely corners took notice.
• Serena Williams returns to dominance. Serena made unfashionably early exits at the Australian and French Opens, losing to players with a combined ranking of more than 150. In Paris, she cried during the match, so abysmal was her play in falling in the first round of a major for the first time. She was already 30, the age at which most players begin an irretrievable decline. But this is Serena we're talking about, a player who has spent her career defying all conventional wisdom. Before the career buzzards could circle much less descend, she ripped off Wimbledon, an Olympic gold medal and a U.S. Open title, enthralling us with some of the best tennis of her unrivaled career. As ever, her achievements came with a side order of controversy. After humiliating Maria Sharapova in the gold-medal match, Williams unleashed a "Crip Walk" dance on the vaunted Centre Court grass. The hidebound types were quick throw around the "dis" words -- disrespect, disgrace, disappointment. For the rest of us, it was a reminder of what we've long suspected: Serena has always conducted business on her terms, indifferent to convention, making concessions to no one. And when she's finally done, we'll forget the inane cause célèbres and the lapses in decorum, and simply acknowledge her as the greatest ever.
• Maria Sharapova completes the career Grand Slam. This is the great Maria Sharapova irony: A player known for grace and sophistication and pulchritude plays ... well, dog-ugly tennis. Her game lacks imagination and flair and fluidity. (And, of course, there's that unfortunate soundtrack when she strikes the ball, ear poison akin to the background singers in Hungry Like the Wolf.) No, Sharapova is tennis' answer to a gym rat, a bruising, industrious player, willing to dirty herself, unafraid of competition. This was never more apparent than Paris where -- on her least favorite surface -- she toiled through seven matches to win her first French Open title and, in turn, the career Slam, which plenty of all-time greats (Pete Sampras, Justine Henin, Monica Seles, Bjorn Borg) failed to achieve.
• The rise of Great Britain. For years, the British media had the story pre-written before Wimbledon began. For all the pounds and pence the tournament generated, the Lawn Tennis Association couldn't alchemize that into decent tennis talent. We won't be seeing that narrative in the foreseeable future. While Murray, rightfully, played the role of leading male, Britain also carried its weight on the women's side. Currently ranked No. 49, Heather Watson, 19, will be a star one day. And she'll inevitably be bracketed with another teenager, No. 53 Laura Robson, who emerged as a funny and conscientious and thoroughly charming presence. Stay calm and carry on.
• Roger Federer wins Wimbledon and regains the No. 1 ranking. Federer, of course, holds the record for records held. But this achievement may end up as the capstone on his career. For more than two years, he failed to win a Slam, a severe drought by his standards. It wasn't that his game had diminished. In some ways, it was worse: He seemed to lack the ineffable element against Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. There were squandered match points and oddly flat big matches and unaccountable losses after leading big. For all the plaudits directed Federer's way over the years, you seldom heard him described as "persistent," much less "rabid." But he showed a new dimension, defiantly sticking around, continuing to battle and bringing his best tennis to bear on the lawns of Wimbledon. His title at the All England Club -- beating Djokovic and Murray in succession and taking his 17th major -- cemented Federer as the Best Ever.
• Rafael Nadal reigns on clay again. Having surrendered his top ranking, lost to Djokovic eight straight times -- including a potentially devastating defeat in Australia -- and spoken openly about the gaps in his once impregnable confidence, Nadal came to the 2012 French Open in an uncharacteristically vulnerable state, shouldering all sorts of pressure. Had he lost in Paris, which he'd done only once since turning pro, his empire would really have been imperiled. Instead, he turned in one of the more courageous performances of his career, winning the French Open for a record seventh time, fittingly defeating Djokovic in the final. While his knees militate against a prolonged career, Nadal's ritual winning of Roland Garros gives him an outside chance of catching Federer's records before he's through.
• The summer stunner. At 27, Lukas Rosol had been a pro for nearly a decade. In that time, he had struggled to win barely one-third of his ATP-level matches. His career-high ranking was a modest No. 65, a threshold Nadal had surpassed as a 17-year-old. The week before Wimbledon, for the first time in his career, Rosol played his first ATP-level grass-court tournament. When Rosol won his first-round match, it also marked his first singles victory at Wimbledon. He entered his second-round Wimbledon match with Nadal ranked an even No. 100, a full 98 spots lower than his opponent. And then Rosol played the match of his life, beating Nadal in five sets in one of the great upsets of the Open Era. Rosol then regressed to the mean, losing his next match and failing to qualify for the U.S. Open. But for a glorious day, he was toast of the ball.
• Venus Williams leaves her mark. While her sister is still a world beater, it's been almost five years since Venus Williams last won a major singles title -- and most of that time has been spent battling illness and injury. So it was especially heartening to see her play top-shelf tennis this summer, winning an Olympic gold in doubles and, most important, still enjoying the simple and complex act of competing. (In the fall, she won her first WTA event in two years.) Her career may, finally, pale in comparison to her sister's. But she's distinguished herself in other ways.
• Two last balls at the U.S. Open. If tennis is supposed to be a ruthlessly adversarial pursuit, Kim Clijsters never picked up on that. From her debut on tour in the late 1990s, Clijsters made friends with almost ruthless abandon. The Belgian announced that the 2012 U.S. Open would mark the end of her Hall of Fame career. And so it was, the first week of the tournament became a time of communal adoration, the entire tennis caravan eulogizing her, as it were. The Open also marked the close of Andy Roddick's career. While Roddick never climbed back in the Grand Slam winners' circle after winning in New York in 2003, he spent most of a full decade as the standard bearer for American men's tennis.
• One for the ages. The seminal rule of sports media: There's no cheering in the press box, But there's a little-known codicil that says it's OK if the subject is older or shorter than you are. So it is that we pull unashamedly for Kimiko Date-Krumm who, at age 42 and 5-foot-4, is back in the top 100.