Sara Errani enjoyed the best season of her career in 2012, to the point where she was named the WTA's Most Improved Player.
Can she improve even more in 2013?
Errani is a 25-year-old Italian who is listed at 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches in the WTA media guide ... but I can guarantee you she checks in lower than that.
The gritty Bologna native is known as one of the fiercest competitors on tour, and much like the ATP's "David" (as in not Goliath), David Ferrer, Errani gets it done with some talent, for sure, but mostly with speed, guts and dogged determination.
Errani's compatriot Roberto Commentucci said, "What makes the difference in her game are not so much the technical aspects. It is that tiny little thing that beats in your chest, that makes you feel alive, that speeds up when you are excited, that jumps in your mouth when the crucial moment has arrived, that marks the difference between the lion and the coward. The heart."
Errani, who honed her skills at the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida before moving on to Spain at the age of 16, took the circuit by storm in 2012, finishing as the No. 6 (career-high) player in the world after starting the year at an okay No. 45. You need a breakout season to move up 39 spots in the Top 50 ... and that's exactly what she did with THE breakout season of the year.
Note: Errani finished the previous four years all ranked in the 40s and had never even cracked the Top 30.
The diminutive star gave Italy a stunning third straight women's finalist at the French Open this year, this after her charismatic countrywoman Francesca Schiavone captured Roland Garros in 2010 and lost to China's Li Na in the 2011 finale in the City of Light.
Errani appeared in no less than five finals and captured an impressive four titles in 2012, with only Roland Garros marking her lone setback in a championship match (Maria Sharapova). She reached at least the quarterfinals at three of the four Grand Slams, including a trip into a first-ever U.S. Open semifinal, with only a Wimbledon (third-round loss) QF escaping her grasp. Pretty good for a "clay-court specialist" who had never advanced beyond the third round of a major prior to this year.
The vertically challenged Errani tallied 55 match wins (55-22) all told this year, including nice ones over 2011 U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur at the season- ending WTA Championships in Istanbul and eventual world No. 5 left-hander and fellow breakout star Angelique Kerber in the fourth round at the U.S. Open.
She piled up more than $3.1 million in prize money in 2012, a season she opened with a new racquet (Babolat instead of Wilson), a heavier and slightly longer stick that allowed for more pop and better reach. Errani dubbed the new racquet "Excalibur," which, of course, was the legendary sword of King Arthur. She and several tennis experts credited the new racquet as the biggest reason for her improved (and then some) game.
Note: Errani had to pay Wilson $30,000 to get out of her contract with the iconic American sporting goods company.
Can Errani actually break through with a major title next year? Former world No. 1 greats Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Martina Hingis, as well as Mary Pierce and former top-ranked star Ana Ivanovic are the only players to capture a Slam the year after winning the Most Improved Player award. Although I don't see Errani on that type of list (talent-wise), she'll certainly have a shot at winning at the French in the spring.
Trivia: Who was the WTA's Most Improved player last year?
And did I mention that Errani is also currently the world's co-No. 1 doubles player and was honored just this week along with fellow Italian Roberta Vinci as the International Tennis Federation's 2012 world doubles champions.
"I'm very happy to have been voted Most Improved Player, and Doubles Team of the Year too," Errani said. "It has been an incredible year for me -- so many matches in singles and doubles. It may be an unrepeatable year, but I'll try to continue like this and give everything I have on the court in every match. And as for the doubles, I'm very happy to share all these results with my best friend, Roberta."
Errani and Vinci corralled major titles at the U.S. and French Opens this year and were the runners-up at the Aussie Open back in January. The 10-year-pro Errani owns 16 career doubles titles, in addition to six career singles championships on the WTA.
I'm not gonna say that Errani will capture her first Grand Slam singles title in 2013, but she will most certainly be in the mix, especially in Paris.
Trivia Answer: Petra Kvitova