How much difference can an inch make? For Sara Errani, it was the difference between earning $414,126 (in 2011) and 2012’s prize haul of $2,181,948. The difference between a year-end ranking of No. 45 (2011) and this year’s No. 6. The difference between losing in the second round of the French Open to Daniela Hantuchova, 6-1, 6-2, (2011) and picking up runner-up hardware there after falling to career Grand Slammer Maria Sharapova in 2012.
It isn’t like Errani grew an extra inch, either. She’s still a decidedly diminutive 5’4 ½“ (she insists on that half-inch in her bio; this is a 25-year-old who knows the value of a few centimeters). That extra inch was built into the racquet she began using this year, after having bought out her former racquet contract for a hefty $30,000. As she joked, “I either got a longer arm or a longer racquet.”
Errani believes that the extra inch in racquet length gives her more power, or a no less important sense that it does. It also provided that greater reach to a player who, even at the worst of times, is a terrific retriever, one of those of whom coaches say, “If she can reach it, she can return it.”
Such hair-splitting is certainly fun, and a lot less controversial than wading into the murky waters of doping, which Errani was unable to avoid after it was revealed that she had worked with Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, the Valencia-based doctor accused of orchestrating a “team-wide doping program” while working for Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service cycling team.
In September, Errani had said that del Moral is “the best doctor in Valencia for everything,” but after he was named by the USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) she renounced him, saying, “His name is not a good name.”
Errani was interviewed by the International Tennis Federation’s own anti-doping people after the del Moral link became public, but ITF spokespersons have said nothing beyond reiterating that if any infractions had taken place, they would be reported to the public.
It’s an unfortunate shadow hanging over Errani’s spectacular, career year. And for all the buzz about that racquet, quantifiable differences like that extra inch fail to convey what everyone who saw Errani play couldn’t help but notice. She played with enormous heart. She was both jack-rabbit quick and pit-bull tough. Her most conspicuous asset seemed to be grit—the willingness to get down in dirty and do whatever it took to win a match.
Much of that intangible improvement consisted of absorbing her opponents’ punches and, while unable to match their power, somehow finding a way to land the final blow. A longer racquet and counter-punching ability didn’t carry Errani to her career year, though. Her legs did.
Errani first declared her intentions at the Australian Open, where she had been a first-round loser in 2011. This year, she made it to the quarterfinals. She won her first title of the year shortly thereafter at Acapulco, but failed to win a match at either of the big hard-court events in the U.S., Indian Wells and Miami.
Errani bounced right back, though, winning the next two events she played, Barcelona and Budapest. That set her up for the highlight of her year, the Grand Slam final she played against Sharapova at Roland Garros. To make the moment sweeter, she and partner Roberta Vinci won the doubles tournament.
If there was a bump in the Italian’s road, it was this odd one: At Wimbledon, a red-hot Yaroslova Shvedova tagged Errani with a historic “golden set,” winning 24 consecutive points in the course of a 6-0, 6-4 third-round blowout. But Errani sloughed off that slight and remained resilient. She won Palermo and rediscovered her excellent Grand Slam form at the U.S. Open, where she made the semis, losing to Serena Williams. That run helped Errani secure her place in the WTA Championships, by which time she had won more than 100 matches (55-22 in singles, 52-10 in doubles) in 2012. She was one tired, but happy, warrior.
Honorable Mention: Angelique Kerber
She finished the year ranked one spot above Errani (No. 6) after starting out at No. 32. It’s hard to believe that a woman who didn’t get past the first round in the first three Grand Slam events of 2011 hasn’t lost before the third round at a Slam since then, logging two semifinals (Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) and quarterfinal (French Open).
Rafael Nadal is currently ranked fourth in the world, but has had a dominant run lately as he has won seven of the last eight French Open titles. Mary Carrillo thinks we’re in store for a Nadal-Djokovic final.
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