<
>

Five indelible moments from 2012

Cynthia Lum/Icon SMI

By now, reflections from 2012 have given way to predictions for 2013. The highlights are well documented and, after a terrific and historic year of tennis, still shimmering:

* Serena Williams was the woman of the game, set and match, the fortnight and the Olympiad.

* Andy Murray, finally and deservedly, broke through with his first major.

* Roger Federer, in case anyone had forgotten that there is a difference between best and best ever, returned to his throne -- as the top-ranked player in the world, the Wimbledon champion for the seventh time, and a major champ for the 17th time.

* Rafael Nadal emptied his tank to set his rivalry with Novak Djokovic right again, beating him three times, all in finals, the sweetest in winning his seventh French Open title while denying Djokovic his first (and a concurrent career slam).

* And Djokovic accomplished his most important feat, backing up his wunderkind 2011 by proving that he is, day in and day out, the best tennis player in the world.

Consensus also could be reached regarding the best matches of the year, in terms of both drama and significance, with the classic Nadal-Djokovic Australian Open final topping nearly everyone's lists. Also up there: the great Djokovic-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Roland Garros quarter, the Serena-Virginie Razzano French Open first round and Williams' U.S. Open final win over Victoria Azarenka. The lists were long, and they were accurate. Plenty of great tennis was offered during the year.

For me, however, 2012 will be remembered not only for the great players and the great matches and the terrific storylines, but also for the individual, sometimes history-shifting moments of competition. Some were simply examples of daily agony, more micro-level proof of just how hard the game is. All were battles within wars, details the players and the witnesses will remember fondly or be haunted by, combinations of skill and luck and fate.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Irina Camelia Begu, S-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, second round, third-set tiebreaker. Begu, then the 87th-ranked player in the world who had played in two WTA finals but had not won a title, split the first two sets with the 2010 French Open champion. She then led 6-0 in the third-set tiebreak and proceeded to lose six straight match points.

At 7-7, Schiavone double-faulted for the 14th time (this is not a misprint), giving Begu her eighth match point. She lost that one, too, as well as the remaining two points of the match. After Begu netted a forehand on Schiavone's first match point and a world-class racket-spike into the grass, it was done.

The Begu postscript contained a somewhat happier ending. After crashing out at Wimbledon and the Olympics in the first round and the U.S. Open in the second, Begu got her first WTA title, winning far from the bright lights at Tashkent.

Tsonga vs. Djokovic, French Open quarters, fourth set, 10th game. Up 5-4 and 15-40, Tsonga had nearly climbed the mountain. Double-match point. Djokovic is in control of the point, but Tsonga gets a terrific look off a soft backhand volley. Tsonga chooses a backhand down the line for the match, yet Djokovic anticipates it and stuns Tsonga with a perfect forehand volley. Djokovic easily erased the second match point with a big serve-forehand combination.

There would be two more lost match points in a tiebreak before Tsonga fell 6-1 in the fifth set. Afterward, a towel was draped over his head for what seemed to be a month before he rose from his chair. The lasting impact of the classic at Chatrier did not alter history as much as confirm it, at least for the moment. Djokovic remains the toughest out in tennis, with Tsonga good enough to be dangerous but yet to be the last man standing at a major.

None of the four match points were on his racket, but it is impossible not to wonder what could have been for Tsonga's year. The game is about belief and Tsonga, for all of his acrobatics and verve, hasn't won a set off Djokovic since that match. For 2012 he was 0-12 against Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer, all players who were ranked ahead of him at the time. Federer and Tsonga, oddly, did not play in 2012, but Tsonga has lost his last four matches against Federer, making it 0-for-16 against the very players he must beat to become a champion. Until he does, that afternoon at Chatrier will only grow larger.

Murray vs. Federer, Wimbledon final, sixth game, third set. On serve at 2-3 and a set apiece, Murray blisters an ace down the T for a 40-0 lead and is on his way to a routine hold. Ten deuces and 19 minutes later, Federer broke Murray's serve and his will, took the set and then the fourth for the championship, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. It was in defeat that Murray's humanity finally emerged through admirable public tears, and throughout that sixth game the haunting footprints of competition were never more apparent. Murray, who routinely hits 132 mph on the radar gun, couldn't find a big serve to close out the game. Federer sensed he was back in a game that was suddenly a defining one, and his concentration was total. The subtext of the tension -- Could Murray actually slay the beast? Could he actually finish the job? -- was not unlike that of Nadal's epic 2008 Wimbledon final with Federer, with a generous layer of British nationalism on top of the heat on the court.

Maybe Murray doesn't think about it anymore because, unlike Tsonga, he doesn't really have to. Murray said losing so excruciatingly told him just how close he was to victory. He backed it up a month later, first by destroying Federer on the same court for Olympic gold and then in September by winning his first major in a five-set emotional marathon against Djokovic at the U.S. Open. The moment had been replaced by new moments.

Serena vs. Azarenka, U.S. Open final, 10th game, third set: For the near future, a day won't go by when Azarenka won't remember -- over coffee, in the shower, about to begin a practice session -- that after holding for a 5-3 lead she never won another game, let alone reached a match point. The closest she got to the title was in the following game, at 30-all with Williams on her second serve. Azarenka shanked her return into the deuce doubles alley.

Azarenka won the Australian Open. She won 26 straight matches to start the year. She buried Maria Sharapova at Indian Wells and again in a U.S. Open semifinal. But that 10th game told her just how far she needs to go, and grow.

Serving for the championship, Azarenka began the game 0-40, her facial expressions suggesting that she was overwhelmed by being so close against an opponent who was at supernova. She lost that game, then was broken at 5-6, and it was over.

These points linger, like aromas from a four-star restaurant or odors from a boathouse at low tide. If Tsonga may soon be defined by his 0-fer against the top shelf of the game, Serena finished the year 10-0 with two majors, a gold medal and year-end title including wins against Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska and Sharapova. Not including a walkover in Rome, she was 18-2 against the top 10.

The aura of Serena is as supreme as her talent, and Azarenka knows those 20 minutes following her hold at 5-3 at Arthur Ashe when she couldn't close out a legend are a big reason.

Nadal vs. Djokovic: Australian Open final, seventh game, fifth set: As time goes by and the memory of Nadal as a giant of his time replaces the injured Nadal in real time, he can look back on the excruciating heat and searing doubt of the fifth set and believe he may just come through hell after all. Up 4-2 and 30-15, Nadal missed a short backhand wide that would have put him a point from a 5-2 lead and a stranglehold on what was nearly his 11th major. It was an untimely miss. Djokovic held, broke Nadal at 5-5, then served out the championship.

Time can do funny things, and for me the backhand at 30-15 is not so haunting for Nadal as much as it a tribute to the game and its quirks and difficulties. Nadal last walked off a tennis court stunned by Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon, but his year also contained a major and a leveling with Djokovic. The Australian Open final, especially in defeat, was a reminder of the legendary Nadal fight and the resolve of Djokovic. It was six hours of pure competition. With Nadal having pulled out of this year's Aussie, that moment will not have a chance to be duplicated.

Call it nerves or will or heart or skill, the fight is what matters. More defining moments await in 2013. The only question will be what the players do with them.