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By Chris Oddo

Sara Errani French Open (November 9, 2012) -- Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani are different in a lot of ways: One is Italian and the other German; One's lefty and the other righty; One has the best return numbers in tennis, the other hardly cracks the top ten in any WTA Stats.

But Errani and Kerber are definitely similar in one, colossal way: Each had a fantastic breakout season 2012. The seemingly indefatigable Errani notched 55 wins in during the season, reaching the French Open final in a surprise run. Having never finished higher than No. 42 in the world, the Bologna, Italy native will finish this season at a career-high No. 6.

Kerber, pugnacious and persistent all year long, was mightily impressive as well, winning 20 out of 23 third sets en route to a 60-win season (her previous best was 23 wins!). The German also notched her first career top-five finish, placing one spot ahead of Errani in the rankings.

Both were unbelievably good in 2012; we’ve established that. But what we really want to know is: who was better?

The truth is, it’s hard to tell. It’s clear that Errani and Kerber stand out against the competition (the other nominees for Most Improved Player are American Varvara Lepchenko and the American doubles tandem of Abigail Spears and Raquel Kops-Jones), but it’s not immediately clear what differentiates the two.

Anyone who has seen either player on a regular basis knows that Errani and Kerber are different entities with different styles of play. Yet, they seem to mirror each other in the sense that each possesses a bullish intensity and enough fire and belief to challenge the elite ranks of women's tennis for titles. They are essentially different but intrinsically the same.

Only one can be the WTA’s Most Improved. Such is the cruelty of life I suppose.

So is it going to be Kerber or is it going to be Errani?

My sensible side tells me that the answer to the million dollar question is Sara Errani. My sentimental side tells me that the answer is Kerber.

In myriad ways, it feels unfair to have to pick on over the other. Kerber, so brilliant in reaching the Wimbledon semis and finishing with a career-high No. 5 ranking, is deserving of the vote. But as good as the 24-year-old was in 2012, Errani was, in my humble opinion, just a smidgen better.

Here's why: Errani had a lower winning percentage (one of the few checks against her), but she produced better results at the Slams. And since Slams are the name of the game in tennis shouldn't they also be the deciding factor in deciding who is the most improved player?

Both Errani and Kerber had a third-round exit and a quarterfinal exit at one Slam this year. But Kerber didn't reach a Grand Slam final like Errani (she lost in the semis at Wimbledon), nor did she reach the quarterfinals in three of four Slams like Errani did.

(Another point that works in Errani's favor is the fact that Kerber had already broken through to a Grand Slam semifinal in 2011. Errani had never reached beyond the third round of a Slam until reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals in 2012.)

It's a close race, and Kerber should--and will--get some votes. And there is certainly some room for interpretation, as definitions of improvement are likely to vary from voter to voter. The German's case is also buffeted by her stellar results in Premier  events. She reached the Cincinnati final, and clocked semifinal appearances in Rome and Indian Wells, in addition to winning Paris with a massive take-down of Sharapova in the final.

It was a great year for Kerber, and she was clearly improved. Kerber came from a 2011 year-end ranking of No. 37 all the way to No. 5, but Errani was ranked No. 45 at the end of 2011, and she climbed all the way to the French Open final, winning twice as many titles as Kerber along the way.

Either way you slice it, it’s a close shave, and somebody is bound to get cut. Both Errani and Kerber were drop dead remarkable in 2012. How about we give split the trophy and give half to each?


(Photo Credit: AFP/Patrick Kovarik)

 

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