Sometimes the Match of the Year is one that marked the end of a process or a narrative. Sometimes it’s a match that clearly marked the beginning of something that flourished later (A rivalry? A dominant streak?) or marked the end of a long process (Someone’s career, for example). Sometimes, actually, almost all the time, this award is simply given to a Grand Slam final … just because everybody loves Grand Slam finals and anything else just seems low-rent. It feels like if the Wimbledon final is half-decent, it’ll be deemed the match of the year, if not the greatest match of all time.
Sometimes we forget that the best tennis match of the year should be the match with the best tennis, regardless of the round, tournament, or players involved. And it should have a certain level of excellence throughout, not just near the end or at the beginning.
2012 gives us a great opportunity to pick a very worthy winner. No, it wasn’t the longest Grand Slam final in history – Djokovic and Nadal only got it going midway through the third set of that eternal final. And by that time, we had already swallowed plenty of nervy, indecisive tennis from both men. Yes, the fourth and fifth sets were magnificent, but you can’t hand over the Best Match of the Year to roughly 45% of a match.
No, it wasn’t Del Potro’s most agonizing defeat to Roger Federer, at this year’s Olympic semifinals. That match was intense, it was nervy, it was occasionally well played, but as the third set went longer and longer, it just felt like Del Potro was delaying the inevitable – he wasn’t threatening Federer at all, and the Swiss eventually clinched the spot in the Gold medal round.
No, it wasn’t the very good US Open final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, which also got going about halfway through and ended with more drama than quality.
No, it wasn’t the Shanghai final between Djokovic and Murray, solely because two excellent and extremely dramatic sets lead to a most anticlimactic third stanza hampered by a hobbling Murray.
No, it wasn’t the Azarenka-Stosur US Open semifinal … although that match might be the runner-up this year.
The best match of the year came out of nowhere. It didn’t really mark the culmination of anything – it wasn’t even a semifinal. It took place at the end of the season, so we have no idea what it will lead to. At the tournament where it took place, the match didn’t even lead to the winner of the match winning the title (or making the final). Same for the loser. The winner was actually playing her first match at the tournament in question, the WTA Championships in Istanbul, while the loser was playing in only her second match.
Yet Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber put on an incredible show. Their match that was uncompromising in its quality as well as in intensity and drama. It was a battle, but a very beautiful battle. It wasn’t so much about power as it was about hitting the right shot in the right direction at the right time. Let’s call it “smart violence.” It was about coming up with incredible shots at the right moments. And it was about never giving up.
At least that’s how I remember it. So why not go back and watch this fantastic match once again? I’ll be your guide – using a variation of the format of my recent look-back at the 1990 French Open final between Andrés Gómez and Andre Agassi, I’ll use links to mark each of my favorite moments of the match, so you’ll be able to go to the exact moment I’m writing about just by following the link. And no worries, the video will open in a separate tab or window, so you won’t lose your spot on this page.
First, a little bit of context as we go back in time to Wednesday, October 24th, 2012. The WTA Championships had just started the day before. Up to this point, we had seen all of four matches, two from each group. World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka (who later went on to clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking) was making her debut, while World No. 5 Angelique Kerber was playing her second match in as many days (if you want to read about the brutally inept schedule used for this event, do click here). The German had lost to Serena Williams on Tuesday, in a match where she couldn’t bring herself to believe she could take down a surprisingly sharp Serena (who hadn’t played since her US Open triumph), and faded away in the second set after the 15-time Slam winner took a tight first.
Azarenka and Kerber don’t have much of a history between each other: prior to this fateful Wednesday, they had played in all of two matches, both of them in 2012. Azarenka was victorious in straight sets both in Indian Wells and at the Olympics, the latter of which she called an incredibly physical match.
Interestingly enough, the best match of 2012 took place right after what was surely one of the worst matches of the year: an error-flooded mess between Serena Williams and Li Na.
The stage is set: we are in the early days of a tournament, we have an unremarkable recent history between the players, and the stakes weren’t really all that high: though Kerber was forced to win to have a chance to survive the round-robin stage, while Azarenka needed every point she could get to clinch the No. 1 ranking for 2012.
Without further ado, let’s jump into this surprisingly excellent match:
Kerber’s first service game: After a pretty straightforward Azarenka hold to 15 that started the proceedings, the match truly begins here. From the start you can see how dialed in Azarenka is, and how Kerber has to dig deep to match her aggression. The first point hints at things to come … but the second point is the one that sets the tone for the entire match: a brutal rally culminates with some extreme angles near the end, and just when Azarenka thought she had pulled Kerber well wide with a great cross-court angled backhand, Kerber blasts a forehand down-the-line winner on the run, punctuated by a emphatic fistpump. The score? 0-1, 15-all. This kind of reaction after the point they played is when you know that you’re in for something special. Do watch that entire first game – it’s wonderful. It’s like an emphatic opening song on a great record.
(Don’t watch Azarenka’s subsequent service game, though: she double-faults twice, and hands Kerber the break with two more errors. Let’s pretend that didn’t happen.)
Beauty of a lob on Kerber’s opening point at 2-1. Just pretty. Keep watching, because two points later, the German sends a gorgeous backhand down the line winner. She has six winners already, and it’s just 3-1 in the opening set. I can’t believe people call her a lefty Wozniacki.
First point of Azarenka’s next service game (1-3): Incredible defense by Kerber, she turns the tables on Azarenka and finishes with a winner. Kerber is so good at going from defense to offense. One of the very few in the WTA who can do that consistently. Her backhand defense in particular is simply unparalleled.
I don’t understand why Azarenka is hell-bent on going to Kerber’s backhand as often as she can. Kind of like Djokovic going to Federer’s forehand early on — a strange and ultimately dangerous tactic. But I’m glad I figured out later why the World No. 1 can do this. It actually makes sense. You’ll see.
A terrible thing about this match? Kerber’s outfit. So awful. It’s the adidas kit that was forced upon our retinas for two solid months, since it appeared around the US Open.
Azarenka’s 3 backhands at 0-30, 3-2, Kerber serving. Such a pretty stroke, and so devastating. The woman known as Vika goes on to break Kerber after some good returns fluster the German.
At 30-0, 3-all, Kerber hits an inside-out backhand drop shot winner that is all class, and all beauty.
Azarenka’s service game at 4-all is a must watch. More and more, we see the violence with which these two ladies can hit the ball, and how easily they can change the direction of their shots. And the crazy thing is, the rallies start getting longer and longer, and they never start hitting the ball any slower. Partially related: midway through the game, Kerber hits an inside-in forehand return winner off an Azarenka second serve that was hit harder than the actual serve.
Azarenka’s service game at 5-all. Just watch it. There is some incredible court coverage by Kerber, and some fantastic down-the-line bombs from both. And a few pretty angled shots are mixed in, for good measure.
The drama sets in when Kerber goes down 15-30, serving at 5-6. The point they play at that juncture simply has it all. So does the 40-30 point, which includes the following shots in succession from Kerber: her trademark falling down forehand down the line, a slice backhand approach, and a tough overhead. That entire game was awesome. Also, Azarenka had a simple swinging volley at 30-all that she pulled wide. Had she not, the Belorussian would have had a set point.
The Tiebreaker: we join in at 4-1, Azarenka. The World Number 1 has raced to a big lead without much effort, and it seems like she will be able to cruise to a one-set lead. But then, crazy things happen. Azarenka will have four straight set points at 6-2, and all will go unclaimed. There will be great tennis from Kerber to even the breaker, but also a most unfortunate error by Azarenka at 6-5. After that, five more set points will be saved by both women. This breaker was dramatic, and it was extremely well played. It ended 13-11.
In terms of the dynamics of this match, there is a clear problem for Kerber in this budding rivalry with Azarenka, and the fact that she almost overcame this pretty sizeable mismatch lets you know just how good the World No. 5 was on this day. Here’s Kerber’s problem: Azarenka can afford to go cross-court with her forehand to Kerber’s backhand as often as she likes, since she can then take a reply down the line, forcing Kerber to defend with her forehand. Inevitably, that shot from the German will be cross-court, to Azarenka’s backhand, and it will most likely be a short ball, since getting depth out of that kind of running shot is not exactly the easiest thing to do consistently. Azarenka, anticipating it, can set up her purest shot, the cross-court backhand to try and finish the point, or go down the line into what should be an empty deuce court. Kerber’s only hope is to get a lot of depth on that cross-court forehand, or anticipate the initial Azarenka forehand down the line and send her own lefty forehand back that way. You can gather that Azarenka’s sequence is much easier to accomplish than Kerber’s.
Yet Kerber did take that opening set. She had to save five set points to do so, though. (Azarenka saved four). Here are the stats:
Notice Kerber’s winners to unforced errors ratio (18 – 11) – it’s far better than Azarenka’s, yet it was Kerber who had to fight off five set points in that set.
Also, 29 combined winners.
The Early Break – with a cracked racquet: A point after Azarenka botches an early break point, she gets a look at a weak Kerber second serve at deuce. Azarenka frames it badly, and then smashes her racquet quite violently. What is fascinating is that she didn’t change racquets (in fact, didn’t even check the frame to see if it was cracked or not), yet she won the next three points to get the early break. Mad skillz.
In the next game, we get Angry Kerber Face, after she challenges a ball that was only a few millimeters in:
You can feel early in this set that Azarenka is now using every little thing that drives Kerber crazy, and that their head-to-head makes a lot of sense: angled forehands to pull her away from the court, and frequent down-the-line shots to make it very difficult for the German to do much more than scramble far behind the baseline. Azarenka is also returning extremely well, which allows her to dictate right from the start of points. Kerber is struggling to be the aggressor, and it’s a small miracle that she’s not down a double-break in this set.
At 30-0, 3-2, we see the following graph from the WTA:
Somehow, it’s Azarenka who’s done more running (albeit slightly). And naturally, both women have won the exact number of points so far. About the running, this just tells you how aggressive Kerber was in the first set, because if they had shown a similar graph for just the five games we’ve seen in the second, Kerber would have a sizeable lead in that category.
After Kerber holds to stay within striking distance at 3-4, we get this nice little tidbit:
Sadly, there is no set by set breakdown, but that’s what I’m here for: in the second set, Azarenka has hit 11 winners and only seven unforced errors, while Kerber has hit eight winners and seven unforced errors. The tide has turned. Also, 48 combined winners by now.
Now, I won’t make you watch it, but Azarenka played a simply atrocious service game at 4-3, breaking herself at love. There was a double-fault to start, and then three straight second ball errors. It was awful. But at least it was quick.
However, the World No. 1 bounces back in the next game, and has two break chances. Which she botches.
Here is Azarenka’s reaction after a bad second serve return, in that same game. Pretty unique, I have to say. And it works, because she then smokes a second serve return cross-court for a clean winner. Just keep watching, because this epic game gets quite fun. Azarenka is on the warpath, but she just can’t string two good points together. It’s an overwhelming siege, and somehow, Kerber survives, sometimes by resourcefulness, sometimes by Azarenka’s errors. It’s funny how Kerber seemed to rarely get the upper hand in the rallies, but did come up with some huge first serves in the most opportune moments. That last game lasted over 13 minutes and had nine deuces. The second set finally recovered the intensity of the first.
Related thought: Kerber’s second serve is the area where she’ll want to improve the most in 2013 (along with putting some more spin and pace on her lefty cross-court forehand). So often that second serve lands in the middle of the box with very little pace, like a sitting duck for an aggressive returner like Azarenka. If Kerber fixes this, she can definitely keep moving up in the rankings.
We now join Kerber as she finds herself two points away from the win (0-30, 4-5 on Azarenka’s serve). We see a racquet smash from the World No. 1, and yet again she fails to break the stick. She does win the next point, after a great down-the-line backhand winner, to make it 15-30. However, Kerber wins a cat and mouse game at net, and it’s double-match point. Victoria Azarenka plays three straight incredible points. There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in her mind during this stretch, and Kerber didn’t have a chance in any of them. That’s how the Belorussian won her first Slam in 2012, and that’s how she became No. 1. Positive, confident and relentless tennis.
Here is game point of Kerber’s service game at 5-all. It’s a thing of beauty, and it has it all: gorgeous down-the-line shots, tenacious defense, angled forehands, a crazy backhand drop shot while running sideways, and an even loonier cross-court backhand passing shot hit while running backwards. What a point.
From that point on, you get to see Azarenka turn it up a notch after the lone bad mistake in this segment of the match: a double fault by Kerber at the start of the tiebreaker. In the blink of an eye, it’s 5-1 to Azarenka, who is borderline unplayable right now. The Down-The-Line Queen is no longer frustrated, and seems to be firmly in control of everything that comes off her racquet.
When I watched this match live, I kept thinking that this was indeed down-the-line porn. We know about Azarenka’s ability to seamlessly guide her shots down those sidelines off both wings, but Kerber loves to finish points with her strange falling-down forehand down the line (one of the most unique shots in the game), and she’s not one to let go of an opportunity to do the same off her great backhand, without falling down. As we know, the down-the-line shots are inherently riskier than cross-court shots, since they have to go over the highest part of the net. But we also know that a good down-the-line shot can alter the balance of a point dramatically. It’s riskier tennis, and there’s just something about seeing that ball travel north-south with intent. It doesn’t hurt that good things often happen to those bold enough to dare to navigate that route.
Someone should send a tape of this match to Juan Martín del Cross-Court.
Here is our trusty Match Update, after two sets:
Notice that significant disparity in forced errors. Couple that with the fact that Kerber gets a racquet on a lot of shots that should be winners, and you get an idea of how aggressively Azarenka is playing. You can also see that Kerber has increased her positive edge in winners to unforced errors differential to 11 (it was seven after the first set), and Azarenka is back to breaking even in that category, after having a minus-nine differential after the first set. Kerber is still hitting more winners than unforced errors in the second set, but Azarenka ended up hitting significantly more winners than unforced errors in that same set. Yet it was Azarenka who faced two match points at 5-4.
Also, this is quite interesting, and illustrates the problems that Azarenka’s game generates for Kerber:
Letting your opponent hit nearly 40% of their shots from inside the baseline is a recipe for disaster in professional tennis. Yes, Kerber had two match points in this match. But she had to play pretty fantastic tennis just to have a chance to overcome this huge disparity in court positioning.
Kerber goes down 0-30 to start her first service game of the decider (Azarenka had held rather easily to start the set – another parallel to the first stanza), and we see how she comes up with some great shots to draw level, only to then go down 30-40 after a grueling rally. Kerber finds a way to save the break point, but then we have another overwhelming siege by Azarenka, who is repelled at first by a brilliant drop-shot-plus-passing shot combo by Kerber, but eventually the World No. 1 gets the break after a combination of shots that seemed to render Kerber helpless.
But someone like Kerber can’t be rendered helpless for long. Keep watching, so you can see how the German approaches Azarenka’s service game with incredible aggression, which results in getting back on serve.
At 30-15, with Kerber serving at 1-2, we have another update on our Distance Run graph:
This is fascinating. The narrative says that Kerber is the defensive player, the one who has to run more just to have a chance to win points. And yet it’s Azarenka who’s done more of the running. That tells you just how much ground the World No. 1 covers, and also reinforces the earlier point about Kerber being more aggressive than people give her credit for.
Back to the match: Kerber is done being pushed around, and every single of her shots is now designed to hurt Azarenka, particularly anything coming out of her backhand. Also crucial? Kerber is getting significantly more depth on her returns of serve, thus neutralizing the Azarenka onslaught for at least one exchange. The game in which the unfortunately clad German consolidates the break is just wonderful.
Watching this match again, it definitely feels like Kerber has to come up with incredible tennis just to be able to stay with Azarenka, who has the cards stacked in her favor. Still, I can’t help but think that the third set version of Kerber, who stands firmly on the baseline and takes the initiative quite often with both her backhand and her forehand, is a sort of glimpse into the future. Yes, Kerber made the top 5 behind her incredible defense and counter-punching ability, but I do think she has the character and the tools to be a more consistent offensive player. How she makes that transition will surely decide the way 2013 unfolds for her.
Back to the match: Azarenka holds easily, and a then a double-fault has Kerber down 15-40, 3-4. Yet, as she’s done so often in this match, Kerber just keeps swinging, and she pummels forehand after forehand to survive the first break point. The second break point is just a work of art. The kind of point that gives you goosebumps. That was nuts. But another deep return by Azarenka triggers a third break point, and then the break.
At this stage, I remember pleading with the Tennis Gods that this match couldn’t end like this. We wanted more! Particularly when we see Kerber play sublime tennis to go up 0-30 on Azarenka’s serve, as the ex-tennis shorts advocate tries to serve out the match. Which she fails to do to the delight of everybody who wanted to see more of this take-no-prisoners battle of wills.
(I’ll pretend I didn’t see that horrible overrule by Eva Asderaki at 30-40. It was on her line, and the ball she called in was clearly out. The line judge’s expression of amusement after Hawk-Eye proves him right is priceless)
You know who didn’t want any more of this match? Victoria Azarenka. She gets a look at a second serve at 15-all, and she returns it for a winner. She gets a look at another, and she immediately pushes Kerber back and forces the error. 15-30. Another second serve, another deep return, then a nice angled backhand to pull Kerber wide, and a down-the-line backhand winner to set up double-match point. And then, masterful offensive tennis from the Australian Open champion to seal the win. That was cold. That was ruthless, and that was supremely impressive.
This is how it feels like to be able to execute that kind of tennis:
Was this match as good as I remembered it? Not quite – but it’s a rarity when a tennis match lives up to its original viewing. The quality of the match has to be otherworldly to compensate for the fact that the mystery of not knowing how the match will unfold- indeed, the mystery that keeps us watching sports – has disappeared.
Still, it was an extremely good match, with sizable chunks of very high quality tennis. A very worthy Best Match of 2012. There was a lot of variety, great tactical acumen, and winners of all kinds throughout the three hours it took. We also had loads of drama in each set: the 9 combined set points saved in the epic first tiebreaker, the two match points saved by Azarenka at 5-4 in the second set, and Kerber breaking back just as Azarenka seemed intent on serving out the match at 5-3 in the third. This match really had it all.
In terms of statistics, here’s the final tally:
Match Line: Azarenka – 45 winners, 40 UFE. Kerber – 49 winners, 43 UFE. Big stat: Kerber served 8 aces. That was big. #wtachamps
— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) October 24, 2012
Oh, and on the subject of those match points saved, here is what the winner of the best match of 2012 had to say:
“I just had to go for it. There was nothing else to do”
After what Azarenka went through in the US Open final just a couple of months earlier, this quote had an added meaning: she had learned her lesson.
The Belorussian’s ATP doppelgänger, Novak Djokovic, would agree.