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Two dominant American players started the 2012 season coming off injuries and passing age 30. It appeared it could be the time for a simmering young talent to boil to the top of the women's tour. Goodbye to Serena and Venus Williams, who have dominated headlines since the late 1990s, hello to some new faces.
Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, who won 26 matches to start the season, Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska, who reached the Wimbledon final, and Italy's Sara Errani, who found some magic in a new racket, all seemed poised to break through.
In the first part of the year, it seemed like the women's game might be ready for a changing of the guard. But then a familiar face came roaring back.
After a slow start -- including a first-round loss at the French Open -- Serena Williams came back to win Wimbledon, the Olympics, the U.S. Open and the year-end championship. She earned more than $7 million in prize money, second only to Azarenka, despite playing three fewer tournaments.
It was another remarkable year for Williams, 31, who seems to have more tennis incarnations than a cat has lives.
A foot injury threatened her career in 2011, then she suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. As she recovered from the condition and the tour went on without her, tennis seemed a distant goal.
"There was a feeling that I didn't even think about playing tennis," Williams said after winning the U.S. Open title. "And I always said my goal wasn't even to play anymore, it was just to be healthy. And I thought, 'Wow I've had a great career, but I just want to be healthy and make it out of here.'"
Williams ultimately came to appreciate the game again. She at times in her career has seemed preoccupied by outside endeavors. After embracing tennis, she proved once again that when she is playing her best, she is nearly impossible to beat.
With her 15 wins, Williams is sixth on the list of women's Grand Slam event winners. She will continue to work for her place in history, saying retirement is not in her plans. That means the next wave of young women will have to work even harder to catch up.
"So many people on tour are like, 'Oh, you just show up and you win matches,'" Williams said. "And I just smile and I let them believe that, but the fact of the matter is I probably work harder than anyone on the WTA Tour."
If there were a runner-up for player of the year, it would be Azarenka. She won her first major in Australia and was the No. 1 player in the world for most of the year. So it is fitting that the best match of the 2012 would feature Azarenka and a resurgent Williams.
Azarenka was the top seed at the 2012 U.S. Open and won her first four matches in straight sets. Playing excellent tennis, she faced Williams in the final.
It was the best serve in the game versus perhaps the best return. The two reached a third set. Exhausted and trailing 5-3 in the third set, Williams somehow found a reservoir of energy to win the last four games and win her 15th Grand Slam 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
Laura Robson needed to qualify for the Australian Open in January and the French in May, but by the U.S. Open, the 18-year-old Brit was in the main draw and reached the round of 16 on her own before losing to defending champion Samantha Stosur 6-4, 6-4.
She rose to 53rd in the rankings and is poised to build on that success. And fittingly, Robson makes her home in Wimbledon, England.
This had all the ingredients of a breakout year for Agnieszka Radwanska. She started strong by winning in Dubai and Miami before reaching the Wimbledon final. For some women, that might be a career year.
But after the loss to Williams in London, Radwanska reached just one final and had mediocre results in many other tournaments. Radwanska has the potential to win majors but seems to have trouble getting past players like Williams and Li Na.
Radwanska has the potential to separate from her contemporaries. Perhaps 2013 is the year she does it.