December 30, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Players of the Year

We've made it, guys! Just a few more days left of the craziest and most life-altering year in my recent memory and then we can finally put 2020 to bed!

Of course, that's not to say it's been all bad this year, and hopefully you've enjoyed my celebration of the best the tennis world had to offer. There's only one more award to hand out, and it's the big one!

It was harder to decide on these winners than I thought, and you might not agree with who came out on top. But you can't doubt all these guys and gals did some great things for the sport this year.

And hopefully it's a sign that we can expect even bigger things from them in 2021.

The Women

The Winner: Sofia Kenin

The young American had been on my radar since stunning Serena Williams in the third round of the French Open last year, but she'd racked up more significant wins than just that. A round earlier she'd beaten a still-on-the-rise Bianca Andreescu, and over the next few months she'd notch wins over newly-minted world #1 Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka.

Still, seeded fourteenth at this year's Australian Open Sofia Kenin was far off the radar. But while all attention was paid to the other American ingenue Coco Gauff, she powered through their fourth round match-up and kept her momentum up through the rest of Week Two. In the final she took on two-time Major winner Garbiñe Muguruza, and though she was ranked higher on paper she was by far the experiential underdog. That didn't daunt her though -- after losing the first set she held strong into the finish, picking up her first Grand Slam and rocketing to a #7 ranking.

Now I admit, I had my concerns over Kenin. While she did pick up a title in Lyon, she also lost her opening matches in Doha and Dubai and even posted a surprise loss in a winnable Fed Cup match. And then, of course, was that embarrassment in Rome, where she was double bageled by Victoria Azarenka.

It would have been easy to write her off if not for what happened next -- in a much more closely contested run at Roland Garros, the then-21-year-old made a run to her second Major final of the year. While she may have lost that battle, the feat was nevertheless impressive -- there are, after all, only a select few women who've been able to reach two Grand Slam finals in one year. Adding to that the other complications of 2020 just makes Kenin's accomplishment all the more impressive.

Can she repeat her success in the year's to come? Well, her run in Paris certainly gives me hope she was no one-hit-wonder. And if she comes out swining, there's plenty of reason to believe we've only just begun to see what she can do.

Runner-Up: Naomi Osaka

If you take into account everything a player does off the court, there's no doubt Naomi Osaka made the most impact of anyone else this year. Not one who previously sought the spotlight, she really came out of her shell for the sake of social justice and the statements she made on her way to a second U.S. Open title may not have been loud, but they were certainly powerful. And her efforts were recognized and praised across the spectrum, earning her one of Sports Illustrated's Sportspeople of the Year and a title far more important than one any trophy represents: advocate and changemaker. Here's hoping her work delivers for the long term.

The Men

The Winner: Rafael Nadal

In many ways Rafael Nadal had one of the least prolific years of his career. With a drastically abbreviated and weirdly placed clay court season and the decision not to defend his U.S. Open title he played far fewer tournaments than he's used to, especially on the surfaces where he does the most harm.

In all, his two titles -- one in Acapulco, which I'd honestly forgotten he'd won, the other of course at Roland Garros -- meant this year tied 2016 for his lowest trophy count since 2005. (The only year he won fewer was 2004 when at 18 he scored his maiden crown in Sopot.) But the other records he set make all the difference.

I've gone through these before -- 13 French Open championships, 100 wins on those courts, 20 Grand Slam titles, 1,000 match wins, and maybe most impressively, nearly 800 straight weeks ranked in the top ten, more than any other man in history. Some of those achievements may never be matched, at least not for a very long time -- and he's not done yet!

Nadal might very well break the tie for Major trophies next season, he's only adding to his accomplishements in Paris and at #2 in the world right now, every week that passes just widens the gap between him and Jimmy Connors for weeks in single digits -- as mentioned, by my count Dominic Thiem is the player closest to passing him, and even that would take ten years -- and only if Rafa drops to #11 right now!

So what if Nadal didn't win as many trophies as Novak Djokovic or Andrey Rublev this year? It's fine that he didn't have the big breakthrough we saw from Thiem. And that the trophies in Bercy and the year-end championships continue to elude him, and that he didn't finish the year at #1 in the world. This honor is less about what he didn't do, and more about what he did.

And he's shown that he's in no hurry to stop doing more.

Runner-Up: Novak Djokovic

Of course, the guy who did end the year at #1, who won four titles and tied for most match wins on the season, deserves a little credit too. I don't begrudge Novak Djokovic any of his successes this year, and I'm not even dinging him for somehow taking up the mantle of tennis's bad boy. The Serb's 37 match win streak from January through October -- yes, I'm discounting that U.S. Open default -- is astounding, and some surprising losses at the end of the season don't diminish that. He may have fallen behind in the race for Grand Slam records, but he's arguably the fittest and most threatening of the Big Three these days, and I wouldn't be surprised if he made a big play for them next year. Could he sweep the Majors in 2021? Well, let's just say I wouldn't put it past him.

Well that does it for this year's Tennis Spin Awards. I hope you liked reading about them as much as I enjoyed bringing them to you. And as we inch closer to a brand new tennis season, let's hope we're all able to stay safe, healthy and enjoy all the excitement the sport has in store!

Be sure to check out all the winners this year and in years past here.

And have a very Happy New Year!

December 27, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Doubles Teams of the Year

I often find it difficult to pick the best doubles team of the year, and this year it was even harder. The abbreviated season and smaller entry fields only added to the usual complications of partner switches and celebrity pairings that can so often shake things up.

But in a year we said goodbye to one legendary team, it's even more imperative that we salute the partnerships that really worked under the strangest of circumstances.

So let's get to them!

The Women

The Winner: Su-Wei Hsieh and Barbora Strycova

This veteran duo has been paired up since 2018 and have won nine titles together, including Wimbledon last year. They didn't get to bring home a Grand Slam title this year, but they only lost two matches together all season, one of which was the Australian Open final.

Both decent singles players in their own right -- Su-Wei Hsieh was my most improved player of 2012 and Barbora Strycova was the surprise semifinalist at the All England Club in 2019 -- together, they won fourteen straight matches on either side of the lockdown, picking up titles in both Dubai and Doha on one side and in Rome on the other. They also kicked off the year winning in Brisbane, by the way.

While Strycova did play the field a bit this season -- she teamed up with Simona Halep in Prague and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in Ostrava -- she found her biggest successes with Hsieh. And while they didn't get the opportunity to play for a year end championship -- they were runners-up last year -- something tells me it might have been hard to beat them if they had.

Runner-Up: Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic

In a way, these two went loss-less at the Majors this year, winning Australia and Roland Garros, and controversially getting withdrawn from the U.S. Open. And over the years they've racked up eleven titles together -- five more finals. It's a shame we didn't get to see more of them, but circumstances of this year made a lot of things that were otherwise commonplace much harder. And I expect if they could rebound from the blow they suffered in New York by winning in Paris, we have a lot more to see from them down the road.

The Men

The Winner: Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury

Okay, I admit it -- this one is based entirely on my heart and only a little bit on the brain. Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury honestly had a better 2019 season than they did this year, when they won two titles and made another three finals. By comparison, the one trophy they claimed together in 2020 is paltry -- but it was a big one.

The eleventh seeds in Melbourne at the start of the year, they scored a huge third round win over Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos -- a team that would go on to win three titles this year -- and then largely sailed to the championship, losing just one set in their run. It was the first Grand Slam for either of them, and while they couldn't repeat at the other Majors, they did manage runs to the semis and quarters in New York and Paris, respectively.

At their second year-end finals they managed to make the semis, coming OHSOCLOSE to victory before a stunning come-from-behind win by Jurgen Melzer and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.

So why'd I pick this team over others that may have laid claim to more trophies this year -- well, I have a little soft spot for Ram. And it's always nice to see an American male do well these days. And, who knows, maybe they'll just do more to prove they earned award next year.

Runner-Up: Bruno Soares and Mate Pavic

This power couple won the U.S. Open this year and made it to the finals at Roland Garros; they also came out on top in the team race despite the fact that Robert Farah and Juan Sebastian Cabal were technically the #1 and #2 doubles players in the world -- that dang point protection program again! Those are some pretty good results, under the circumstances, and I was actually surprised to learn how little they played together -- they just teamed up in 2019 and won that season's year end championships. They're parting ways again -- Bruno Soares will re-pair with his long-time partner Jamie Murray in the new year while Mate Pavic will try his luck with Nikola Koolhof -- but it was sure nice to see them break some ground together.

Honorable Mention: Wesley Koolhof and Nikola Mektic

Because I cheated a little on the winner of this category, it's only fair I award a consolation prize here, and it goes to the team that lifted the trophy at the Nitto Finals. Wesley Koolhof and Nikola Mektic were not names I knew before, and they only partnered up this season. But they also made the semis at the French Open and the final in New York. And while it seems a Grand Slam could be in their near future, it might not be with each other -- Koolhof, as mentioned, will reportedly hitch his wagon to Mate Pavic in 2021, while Mektic is teaming with veteran Lukasz Kubot, both formidable allies themselves. But whoever they team up with, I'll be excited to watch what they bring to the courts next.

Well that just about covers this year's Tennis Spin Awards, but there's still one more to go! Be sure to come back for the big one -- the 2020 Players of the Year!

And to see all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.

December 24, 2020

2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Matches of the Year

It may have been a short season for tennis, but that still didn't leave us lacking for really great matches. From nail-biting five setters, to the ushering in of new talent, to battles reminiscent of the glory days, we certainly got to see some of the best that this sport has to offer in 2020. And it sure gives us hope for what's to come.

So as we close in on the last Tennis Spin Awards for the year, it's time to salute...

The Women

The Winner: Serena Williams d. Venus Williams, Lexington, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4

Over the last twenty-two years these sistens have faced each other 31 times, twelve times in a final, nine when a Major trophy was at stake. And their their latest battle in the second round of this year's inaugural Top Seed Open could rival any one of those for a place in history.

Serena, of course, was the favorite in this one, still ranked in the top ten and holding the #1 seed at the event. Venus, meanwhile, had started to slow down, falling out of the top sixty and going winless in her first three matches of the year. But she was coming off a win over a then on-the-mend Victoria Azarenka in the first round of Lexington and might have brought that confidence with her into the next match.

She got off to a good start, too, taking the first set and building a 4-2 lead in the decider before her younger sister came roaring back. Breaking serve immediately after losing hers, Serena won the last four games of the match, and after nearly two and a half hours extended her lead in this four-decade-longrivalry to 19-12.

Of course, at 39 and 40 years old respectively, there is only so much time left that Serena and Venus will be able to play at such a high level. But reminding us of what they can do -- and seemingly bringing out the best in each other -- gives us hope that we might just see a little more meetings like this one. And hopefully the quality will be just as high as we've gotten so used to seeing.

Honorable Mention: Maria Sakkari d. Serena Williams, "Cincinnati", 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-1

Serena Williams didn't always come out on the winning end of her battles this year. Though she did end a nearly three-year title drought in Auckland to start the season, her quest for Grand Slam #24 remains unfulfilled and she proved she was eminently beatable on a couple fronts. But Maria Sakkari's win at the Western & Southern was more a triumph for the Greek than a breakdown of the American. The thirteenth seed fought back from a 2-5 deficit in the first set and held strong after losing an early break in the second. She came within two points of defeat before taking the tiebreak and storming through the decider. Well-placed shots, solid ground strokes and a firm resolve helped her come out the winner of that match, and while she did lose her next match -- and her next meeting with Williams -- I have high hopes she'll come into the new season strong and swinging.

The Men

The Winner: Dominic Thiem d. Alexander Zverev, U.S. Open, 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6)

Dominic Thiem was starting to get a reputation. Long heralded as the face of the next generation in men's tennis, he had, the last two years, come within one match of that elusive maiden Grand Slam, losing twice to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. And while those losses might have been expected, he very nearly could have broken the seal this year in Melbourne, when he took a 2-set-to-1 lead over Novak Djokovic in the championship match. He fell short again.

So, you could imagine the pressure on him at this year's U.S. Open, with Rafa and Roger Federer both skipping the event and Nole so spectacularly ousted in the fourth round. We were guaranteed a first-time Major winner by the quarters and of course the 27-year-old Austrian, the second seed, was the favorite.

But it looked at the outset that things would not go his way. After a relatively drama-free run to the final he found himself down two sets to Alexander Zverev, who seemed to have put his summer troubles behind him. The German, who'd come back from two sets down to Pablo CarreΓ±o Busta in the semis, appeared the better-rested of the two combatants, and Thiem, who'd joked earlier that he'd have to call Andy Murray for advice on how to deal with losing his first four Major finals, seemed headed for the door.

It turned out, though, that Thiem had a little more fight left in him. He stormed back to take the third and fourth sets and in a decider full of service breaks -- six total in the set -- became the first man to win the U.S. Open in a fifth-set tiebreak. He was also the first to win in New York from two sets down.

The win made Thiem one of just five active players not named Roger, Rafa, or Nole who can call themselves a Grand Slam champion. We'll have to see if the win opens the floodgates for him over the coming years -- but as we get deeper into the Big Three's careers he seems in the best place to take over the reins.

Honorable Mention: Roger Federer d. Tennys Sandgren, Australian Open, 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6(8), 6-3

We all know it's never a good idea to count out Roger Federer. Many tried after that stunning Wimbledon victory in 2012, saying that 17th Major trophy was looking to be his last. But, starting with the 2017 Australian Open, he then picked up numbers eighteen through twenty. Still, like many of the greats, he has proven he can be beaten in recent years, losing to players like John Millman, Kevin Anderson, and a #78-ranked Grigor Dimitrov. So when Tennys Sandgren, ranked just in the top hundred at the time, earned seven match points during their quarterfinal in Melbourne, you'd think he'd have a shot at converting one of them. But Roger showed us why he's Roger, holding tough for the win before falling a match later to Novak Djokovic. And while that was the last we saw of him this year, you have to believe he'll come back stronger and fitter in the new year.

We've almost made it -- only two more Tennis Spin Awards left to hand out! Up next: the doubles teams of the years. It's always better when we play together!

And to see all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.

December 21, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Most Anticipated Comebacks

One of the reasons I had so much trouble coming up with the men who'd staged huge comebacks this year was that so many of the top guys were all but missing from tour in 2020 -- a couple gals too. Whether because of injury or due to COVID-related travel restrictions, we know we didn't get a full picture of what the tennis game should have been like this season.

But luckily we're on the verge of a new year and some of the players we saw precious little of last season have promised to make a return. So let's take a look at them.

Will they be in as great a shape as they were the last time we saw them? Well, it stands to reason it may take a few weeks or months before they return to form. But I sure am willing to wait for it.

The Women

The Winner: Bianca Andreescu

It almost feels like the 20-year-old Canadian was a tornado that blew through the tennis world last year. Ranked out of the top hundred at the start of the season, she stormed through draws at the biggest events, making quick work of the likes of Angelique Kerber, GarbiΓ±e Muguruza, Sofia Kenin, and Serena Wiliams, and picking up titles at Indian Wells, Toronto, and the U.S. Open -- the run made only more remarkable by the fact that it was the first time she'd ever played the main draw of that Major. She ended the year as #5.

But it's been over a year since Bianca Andreescu took the court -- a knee injury at her first WTA Finals forced her out of this year's Australian Open. After a couple false starts -- we thought she'd be back in February and then, after the seven month lockdown, hoped she could try to defend in New York -- she called off her season in September, not that there was much season left at that point.

She's been training hard, though, for her return, practicing in Dubai ahead of the now-delayed Australian Open. It'll be interesting to see if she can have the same success she did pre-injury. After all, her rise was so meteoric it was bound to take a couple opponents by surprise, and whether she can keep it going now that she's a known quantitiy -- well, we'll have to see.

Still, I do have faith -- her game seems strong enough to have some staying power. And whoever's on the other side of the net will surely have to bring their best.

Runner-Up: Ashleigh Barty

Maybe I'm a grump, but was I the only one raising an eyebrow at all posts congratulating the 24-year-old for a second straight year-end #1 ranking? After all, Ashleigh Barty only played three events this year, and none since February. While I respect her decision to stay local during these uncertain times, and her point-retention is less problematic than, say, Marketa Vondrousova, who she beat in the French Open final but lost in the first round in 2020 -- the "best-of" scenario really should only come into play if you were prevented from playing the same event -- it certainly feels like there are others who are more deserving of that honor. Still, Barty had a great season in 2019, also picking up trophies in Miami and at the year-end championship, and made a nice run to the Melbourne semis this year. And I'm excited to see if that performance was a fluke or a sign of something more.

The Men

The Winner: Roger Federer

Okay...deep breath...rumors of the great one's imminent retirement are hopefully greatly exagerrated.

Still, it's not often that we see the GOAT 🐐 contender take so much time off in one season. When back injury caused him to end a streak of 65 straight Grand Slam appearances in 2016, we hardly knew what to do with ourselves.

His respite this year seemed particularly well-timed. After undergoing knee surgery in February, he pulled out of Dubai and was planning to sit out Miami, Indian Wells and the French Open, had any of those events happened as originally scheduled. He officially closed the books on a potential return this year after another surgery in June, making this his quietest season in over two decades.

But Roger Federer is nothing if not a journeyman. An unlikely social media star, he was putting in the work even in his downtime and has indicated his intention to play in Melbourne next year -- and scared everyone with his latest hint of a delayed return.

And he's certainly got plenty of motivation to get back on court. After all, as congratulatory as he might be over Rafael Nadal's tying his record 20 Grand Slam titles, I'm sure he wants to add a couple more wins to his résumé before he calls it quits. And at 39 years young he's running out of time to do it.

Of course, we should know better than to write off Roger Federer. And we should expect when he hits the court next year, he's going to bring all the firepower and grace he's always given us.

Runner-Up: Juan Martin Del Potro

I feel like this is my most anticipated comeback EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. But Juan Martin Del Potro isn't giving up yet, and neither am I. The gentle giant has been dealing with one injury after another over the years, from persistent wrist problems -- once requiring four surgeries in one year -- to most recently a second fracture of his patella at Queen's Club in 2019. That might be enough for most people to call it quits, but the Argentine wants to fight on. And he's climbed out of the depths before -- twice in the past he's fallen out of the top hundred and both times made it back to the top ten. He'll be trying to do it a third time. Earlier this month, DelPo underwent a stem cell treatment and said he's got his sights set on playing the Olympics next year -- remember, he's already got two medals at the Games. I don't know if he'll get there, but if there's anyone who can, it's him.

Honorable Mention: Nick Kyrgios

Unlike Roger and DelPo, who spent the year recouping from injury and surgery, the feisty Australian was MIA from the Tour for entirely 2020 reasons. Like Barty above, Nick Kyrgios took the enviable stance of avoiding travel during the pandemic and became the surprising voice of public health in the sport, loudly calling out those who were less than careful during the ill-fated Adria Tour over the summer. And it's a shame we didn't get to see him on court more -- he started the year with a solid win over Stefanos Tsitsipas at the ATP Cup and stunned a soon-to-be-target in his tirades, Karen Khachanov, at the Australian Open. It looked like his ranking was back on the rise again, and hopefully it will be once again.

We're getting to the end of this year's Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the matches of the year -- the ones that had us on the edge of our seats and screaming like mad at the television.

And to check out all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.

December 18, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Best Comebacks

It's amazing, when you think about it, that in a season as crazy as this one that some particularly talented players were able to find an opportunity to really turn their careers around.

So let's take a moment to celebrate this year's....

These successes didn't happen just because the fields had been thinned out by the unusual circumstances of the year -- they happened in spite of that. Whether it was through toiling away at lower tier events, hitting the courts week after week, or pulling off some major upsets against the sport's biggest stars, these guys really earned their climbs back up the rankings this year.

And here's hoping we see them stay there well into the future.

The Women

The Winner: Tsvetana Pironkova

To be honest, I didn't even know the 33-year-old Bulgarian had left the game three years ago to have a baby and raise her child. In the early 2010s, Tsvetana Pironkova was one of my favorite underdog stories, beating Marion Bartoli and Venus Williams to reach the semis at Wimbledon at the turn of the decade, and beating Venus again the next year, along with then-#2 Vera Zvonareva. Weirdly, though, she never cracked the top thirty and her only trophy came at Sydney in 2014 where, as a qualifier she beat Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova, and Angelique Kerber one by one.

She was ranked nearly out of the top 150 when she took her leave in 2017 and, in what might have been -- if not for how it turned out -- one of the worst-timed announcements in sports, decided in mid-March she was ready to make her return.

And what a return it was. A wildcard at the 2020 U.S. Open, her first pro event in over three years, she stunned a somewhat ailing but nevertheless on-the-rise GarbiΓ±e Muguruza in the second round. She then went on to take out Donna Vekic and AlizΓ© Cornet, the latter in a blockbuster three-setter, and even grabbed a set off Serena Williams in the quarters.

It was Prionkova's best Major performance since 2016 and her best ever in New York. And it took her from completely unranked to #156 in the world -- not bad for one week's work. She made the third round at Roland Garros too, thanks in part to Serena's withdrawal, but I'd expect her to come into 2021 hungry to move even higher. And if this is what she could do with so little practice, imagine what it'll be like when she really has time to hone her craft.

Runner-Up: Victoria Azarenka

About a year ago, I made a handful of predictions, some of which at the time felt very far-fetched. One, of course, was that Victoria Azarenka, ranked #50 at the time and without a title in nearly four years, would re-enter the top ten. She seemed determined to prove me wrong at the start of the year, pulling out of the Australian Open, losing her first two matches, and alluding to potential retirement. But then she hit the courts in New York, winning her first title in "Cincy", albeit thanks to a default but also with wins over tough Johanna Konta and Ons Jabeur. And she really impressed at the U.S. Open, roaring to her first win over Serena Williams at a Major to make the final. Solid results at the end of the season helped her finish the year at #14, a bit short of my hopes, but seemingly well on her way to get there soon.

Honorable Mention: Eugenie Bouchard

It sure feels like the heyday for the 26-year-old Canadian is far behind her, but she's certainly putting in the work to prove that's not the case. Ranked outside the top 200 at the start of the year, she played through and failed in qualifying for the Australian Open and dropped her first round at the Oracle Challenger Series in Newport Beach. But her practice during the lockdown seemed to pay off -- she made the quarters in Prague and, while everyone else was focused on the action in the Big Apple, made the final at a WTA event in Istanbul, her first runner-up finish since 2016, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova on the way. She ends the year at #141, still well off her best days, but for the first time in a while I kind of have faith she'll be able to rise back higher.

The Men

The Winner: Milos Raonic

I admit I had a harder time coming up with the men's winners than I did the women's. While Andy Murray pulled off a solid upset of Alexander Zverev in Cincinnati, his real comeback took place in 2019, before getting stalled again, and Kei Nishikori, out of commission for nearly a year after last season's U.S. Open, only won two matches in 2020, though one was an impressive five-setter over Daniel Evans.

Meanwhile Milos Raonic, who peaked at #3 in the world after a Wimbledon final run in 2016, has been swinging between the mid-teens and mid-thirties for the better part of three years. A fairly middling end to the 2019 season pushed him down to #32 at the beginning of the year. But he got to improving on that right away.

A straight set win over Stefanos Tsitsipas on his way to the quarters in Melbourne, plus a semifinal run in Delray Beach gave him some momentum going into lockdown. But his real success came just ahead of the U.S. Open. He scored another win over the Greek in "Cincy" and took a set off Novak Djokovic in the final, his best Masters performance in over four years. He skipped Roland Garros, but managed a run to the Bercy semis to end the year, giving him a ranking of #14 going into the new season.

Raonic still hasn't been able to take home a title since 2016, but I have high hopes the 29-year-old Canadian might be able to end that drought soon.

Runner-Up: Kevin Anderson

While I wasn't looking over the last few years, the 34-year-old South African made his way to not one, but two Grand Slam finals. While ranked #32 back in 2017, he upset Sam Querrey and Pablo Carreño Busta to play for the U.S. Open title, and the next year he stunned Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarters and endured a six and a half hour marathon against -- surprise! -- John Isner a round later. He got to #5 in the world that year, but knee surgery last season pushed him all the way out of the top hundred. He's still trying to climb out of the hole, but did manage a couple technical upsets early in the year, plus a straight set win over Daniil Medvedev in Vienna near the close of the season. Still down at #81, I have high hopes he could cut that even further.

Honorable Mention: Jack Sock

It's a little hard to say the 28-year-old American notched a true comeback, but in some respects -- after a 2019 season with just one win and a 2018 with fifteen first round losses -- the one-time world #8 was looking for a bright spot wherever he could find one. Jack Sock was unranked at the start of the year, and his much-celebrated first win in sixteen months at Delray only brought him into the 700s. A run to the final at the Indian Wells Challenger Series might have given him a little momentum, but of course it was stopped with the lockdown. He did manage a few nice wins at the end of the year and ended the season at #253. Hopefully the new season will help him get things even further back on track.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the most anticipated comebacks. These guys didn't see a lot of action this year, and we can't wait 'til they're back on court!

And to see all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.

December 15, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Greatest Letdowns

Well, as with anything, it's never only good news. For all the records, highlights, and breakthroughs we saw this year, there were a couple of big disappointments, and not always on the tennis court.

So it's only fair that, along with all the accolades, I give out a couple of anti-awards.

These are the players who came into the season with high expectations and for one reason or another didn't live up to them. Hopefully they can do better in the new year.

The Women

The Winner: Donna Vekic

There is a weird phenomenon with tennis rankings this year, due to the COVID-addled season, that allows players to count the points at the better of their two appearances at the same event in 2019 or 2020. It was meant to protect those who, because of travel restrictions or health concerns, couldn't make it to tournaments across the globe. But it's also why players like Marketa Vondrousova is carrying runner-up points from last year's Roland Garros into the new season despite having lost in the first round there this year.

It's also why Donna Vekic, who reached her first Major quarterfinal at the U.S. Open last year, is still ranked as high as she is at #32 in the world despite an unimpressive 8-11 record this season.

Vekic is one of those players who seemed destined to be the sport's next wΓΌnderkind, but never quite got there. At 16 years of age in 2012, she staged an impressive run in Tashkent to make the final there and a few years later scored her first top ten win and title in Kuala Lumpur. It took a few more seasons before she broke into the top fifty, but her success in New York in 2019, coupled with final appearances in Nottingham and St. Petersburg, helped her climb to #19 in the world.

This year, though, has been a bit of a bust -- she's lost in the first round of six events, including dropping to #142 Irina Bara in Paris. She lost to Iga Swiatek twice, though of course the French Open champ is now ranked higher than Vekic, and only scored one win over a top thirty player all the way back in January.

Now ranked #32 -- the points protection program, at least, does allow players to rack up new points, so plenty had a chance to pass Vekic as her total stayed still -- she's on the edge of Slam seeding territory, and will need to get her groove back if she wants to continue her climb.

Honorable Mention: Belinda Bencic

Another player who had high expectations from a young age, the now-23-year-old Swiss, at least, was able to live up to those standards earlier and a little more consistently. Belinda Bencic made the quarters at the U.S. Open back in 2014, and after a wrist injury slowed her down a bit, a 2019 season that saw two titles, another final, and a run to the semis in New York -- not to mention two wins over Naomi Osaka helped her climb to a career high of #4 in the world by February. But it's been a rough road this year - s he was decimated by Annet Kontaveit in Melbourne, winning just one game, and was stunned by young Leylah Fernandez in Fed Cup play. She's only played one match since the lockdown ended, losing to Danka Kovinic in straight sets in Rome, but she's clawed back from struggles before and I see no reason she won't do it again.

The Men

The Winner: Alexander Zverev

If you've only followed the scorelines and tournament results this year, the rationale behind this award may seem strange, given that the world #7 picked up two titles in Cologne at the end of the season after reaching and nearly winning his first Grand Slam final. But it's the other headlines swirling around Alexander Zverev that are so much more than disappointing.

It started after the ill-fated Adria Tour over the summer -- a series of exhibition events organized by Novak Djokovic while most of the world was still under lockdown, without much regard for safety protocols. A couple of players testing positive for COVID, including Djokovic himself, led to its early end, but while most participants quarantined after cancellation -- or at least tried to keep a low profile -- Zverev was famously caught on camera partying in a mask-less crowd.

He eventually apologized for his behavior and even seemed to try to set a good example at the U.S. Open, rushing to put on masks for post-match interviews and urging safety when he could. Some might have thought he'd turned a corner until the antics he pulled at the French Open. After his fourth round loss to teenaged phenom Jannik Sinner, he admitted he played with a fever and other flu-like symptoms, raising questions about just how safe those he came in contact were. While he said he did subsequently test negative for COVID, it wasn't exactly the mark of a man taking the pandemic seriously.

But none of that compares to the allegations that came at the end of the season. Just before the ATP Finals, Zverev's ex-girlfriend Olya Sharypova accused him of physically abusing her and another ex revealed she was pregnant with Zverev's baby but that he wouldn't have a part in raising the child -- draw your own conclusions on that.

Zverev, for his part, issued a non-defense of the first allegation, saying just that he and Sharypova broke up over a year ago and that her statements are untrue. But maybe the bigger letdown has been from the ATP, which hasn't made any move to institute a code of conduct -- it's, after all, not even the first time this year a player has been accused of abuse.

While all the off-court drama hasn't seemed to affect Zverev's on-court performance, I can't help but hope there's some karma to come.

Honorable Mention: Matteo Berrettini

Okay, let's get back to tennis, shall we?

The same phenomenon that protected the women's points did the same for the men, which is why the hunky Italians appears to have retained his spot in the top ten without much to show for it. Last year, when Matteo Berrettini made an appearance in the U.S. Open semis, I hadn't even heard of him, but he'd put together a pretty impressive season 'til that point. Titles in Stuttgart and Budapest, a run to the final in Munich, wins over Alexander Zverev and Karen Khachanov helped him into the top twenty by Wimbledon. He also came out on the better end of a couple of tough five setters against Diego Schwartzman and Gael Monfils in the back half of the year before scoring a couple wins over Dominic Thiem to end the season. Still, I had my doubts he'd keep things up in the new year, and I wasn't entirely wrong -- though I was impressed he made it to the fourth round in New York, taking a set off Andrey Rublev, he lost to much lower ranked players too: Tennys Sandgren, #100 at the time, Marcos Giron and #146 Daniel Altmaier. It looks like he'll have to wait for next season to prove my concerns unfounded.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the best comebacks of the year. More than a couple players who seemed to be down for the count came roaring back in a big way this year, and we sure loved watching it!

And to see all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.

December 12, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Ones to Watch

We've been saying this for sometime, but for some reason it feels more immediate this year. On the men's side, the wall of the Big Three finally seemed to show some signs of cracking as Dominic Thiem broke the seal for Grand Slam glory. And for the women, yet another teenager made her mark on the clay of Paris.

So with the door to the next era of tennis superstars getting pushed even farther open, it's only natural we look at some of the young talent ready to walk through.

Now for this award, I was at no loss of potential candidates, and as you'll soon see, I actually had trouble narrowing down the list. There is happily no shortage of rising stars out there, and we got to see more than a few in action this year.

So let's get to them!

The Women

The Winner: Leylah Fernandez

The young Canadian first caught my attention early in the year when, in her Fed Cup -- now Billie Jean King Cup -- debut she stunned then-world #5 Belinda Bencic in straight sets. But Leylah Fernandez had been a mainstay on the Junior circuit for a while, playing the Australian Open Girls' final in 2019 and winning the title in Roland Garros a few months later.

She made some nice headway on the big girl's tour straight away -- as a qualifier in Acapulco, Fernandez beat eighth seeded Nao Hibino and didn't drop her set until the final, which she lost to a rejuvenated Heather Watson. She went on to beat Sloane Stephens in Monterrey a week later and then again on the other side of lockdown in Lexington.

She wasn't intimidated at the bigger events either -- just days before her eighteenth birthday she won her first main draw match at a Major, defeating veteran Vera Zvonareva in New York, and made her way to the third round at the French Open too. Now ranked #88 in the world, she'll hit the new season at her career high.

She may not be as in the spotlight as younger players like Coco Gauff, or even as accomplished -- the 16-year-old did, after all, win a title last year in Linz. But we, of course, shouldn't necessarily hold everyone up to that standard.

And while people like compatriot Bianca Andreescu and even Iga Swiatek may have had their breakthroughs at ages not much older than hers, I wouldn't be surprised if Fernandez isn't following closely behind.

Honorable Mentions:

Denmark's Clara Tauson, who beat Fernandez in the Australian Open Girls' final last year when she was only sixteen, stunned Jennifer Brady in the first round of the French Open this year. That after making the fourth round at the Prague 125K event, where she beat former Roland Garros runner-up Sara Errani in the process. To close out the year, she scored a win over U.S. Open and Lexington Cinderella Shelby Rogers at an ITF tournament in Tyler, Texas. And at just a hair under eighteen, something tells me we've only just started to see what she can do.

A few ranking points below Tauson, and about a year older, Leonie Kung also had a solid Junior career, reaching the Wimbledon Girls' final in 2018, where she lost to Iga Swiatek. Since graduating to the big leagues, she's spent most of her time on the ITF circuit and playing qualifiers and has yet to reach the main draw of a Major. But she had a nice run at the start of the year in Hua Hin, beating Qiang Wang -- the vanquisher of Serena Williams in Australia -- and Nao Hibino -- who'd taken out Elina Svitolina a round earlier. Though she hasn't done too much since losing that final, I'd like to see her hit the ground running in 2021.

Probably the most accomplished of this group, though, is 23-year-old Paula Badosa, who snuck in a run to the fourth round of Roland Garros this year, beating former runner-up Sloane Stephens and former champion Jelena Ostapenko in the process. She currently sits at a ranking of #70, but clearly has the potential to go higher. Let's see if she can do it right off the bat.

The Men

The Winner: Thiago Seyboth Wild

There was a lot of young talent that presented itself at the end of the year, but I'll get to those. But I'm choosing to give this award to a man who really shined at the start of the season.

Brazil's Thiago Seyboth Wild was ranked out of the top two hundred at the start of the year, but during the Golden Swing put up a nice fight against Borna Coric in Rio and stunned his way to his first ATP title in Santiago just before his twentieth birthday. He beat Cristian Garin and Casper Ruud, two others who made appearances in this year's awards, to do it.

Diagnosed early on with COVID, the first tennis player we know of to say so, he was fully recovered by the time lockdown ended, but the second half of the year was a lot less productive. Seyboth Wild had a nice run at a Challenger event in Aix en Provence, making his way to the final, but lost six matches in a row after that. Hopefully he'll regroup over the next few months. It would be great to see him make a move during the South American circuit.

Honorable Mentions:

Get ready, there are a lot of 'em. But there was just so much focus on these young stars who really scored some big wins in the late summer and fall that I couldn't really leave anyone out. I'll try to make this quick.

Sebastian Korda took out John Isner at the French Open on his way to a fourth round meeting against his idol Rafael Nadal. He finished off his year with his first title at a Challenger event in Eckental, Germany. He's still ranked well in the triple digits, but the former Junior #1 and son of 1998 Australian Open champ Petr, could have an opportunity to add a lot more ranking points in the new year.

Hugo Gaston also had a breakthrough at Roland Garros, coming out on the winning end of a marathon against former champ Stan Wawrinka in the third round, then pushing recent U.S. Open winner Dominic Thiem to a decider after dropping the first two sets. The run helped the 20-year-old wildcard climb from the 200s to just outside the 150s. It'll be fun to see what he can do when the spotlight turns to him.

Lorenzo Musetti didn't make it to the French Open, but he still had a nice clay court season in 2020. The eighteen-year-old qualified for Rome and then also beat Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori before losing to that event's Cinderella Dominik Koepfer. He went on to his first Challenger title in Forli, Italy, with wins over Frances Tiafoe and veteran Andreas Seppi. His successes got him to a year-end ranking of #128, and something tells me he's heading higher soon.

Then there's Brandon Nakashima, the 19-year-old who left UVA last December to turn pro. Hopefully it was a good decision -- he scored his first Grand Slam win in New York with a defeat of veteran Paolo Lorenzi and capped off the year with a Challenger title in Orlando. He's still outside the top 150, but maybe heading higher.

And the youngest on this list, Carlos Alcaraz, at just 17 years of age. He won 14 straight ITF matches at the start of the season while ranked in the 400s, losing in the final in Antalya, Turkey, before winning his first and so far only tour-level match in Rio. He graduated to the Challengers' tour in the back half of the year, with titles in Trieste, Italy, and Barcelona and Alicante, Spain. At #141 now, he's the youngest man in the top 200, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him set even more bars next year.

Well, that was a lot, but hopefully you agree that all these guys and gals deserve some attention. And even more hopefully, they live up to my expectaions.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the greatest letdowns of 2020. In a year so strange, there were bound to be a couple players who weren't able to get on the good side of the tennis gods.

And to see all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.

December 9, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Biggest Upsets

One of the best things about tennis, I think, and sports in general, is the unexpected -- unless you're on the losing side, of course. Favorites are only favorites on paper, and anyone could find a moment of glory and outshine an opponent or take advantage of a rare moment of weakness.

So today I'll celebrate those surprises -- the wins we never saw coming and the Davids who so shockingly slayed the Goliaths against the most unlikely of circumstances. This edition of the Tennis Spin Awards goes to...

Let's get right to 'em!!

The Women

The Winner: Shelby Rogers d. Serena Williams, Lexington, 1-6, 6-4, 7-6(5)

This one was a stunner for so many reasons. Serena Williams was the top seed at the inaugural Top Seed Open, which, as the first event out of lockdown and just a few weeks ahead of the revamped U.S. Open, had attracted a slate of elite talent. And Williams looked good -- after ending a near three-year title drought in Auckland to start the year, she had battled past her sister in the second round here, a match that reminded us why these two have contested nine Grand Slam finals.

Shelby Rogers, on the other hand, was still clawing back from surgery in 2018 which had dropped her ranking into the 700s. This year she'd played mostly ITF and Challenger events, qualified for the Australian Open and lost a weird 6-0, 1-6, 0-6 opener to eventual runner-up Garbinñe Muguruza, and dropped her first round match in Acapulco.

She'd been able to climb to #116 in the world by the time she hit Lexington, but even after a nice win over talented teen Leylah Fernadez, she wasn't given much of a chance against the in-form Williams, especially not after dropping the first set in less than half an hour. But the 28-year-old American somehow found a way to fight back. She broke late in the second to force a decider and took control in the final set tiebreak, winning the match in just over two hours.

It was the first time Williams had lost to a player ranked in triple digits since that shocking loss to then-#111 Virginie Razzano at the French Open in 2012.

For Rogers, who did lose her next round in Lexington, it nevertheless did propel the second half of her season. She went on to defeat Petra Kvitova at the U.S. Open, earning her first Major quarter since 2016, and finished the year at #58 in the world. If she can bring the same heat she had into the new season, I'm hoping she can climb even higher.

Honorable Mention: Varvara Gracheva d. Kristina Mladenovic, U.S. Open, 1-6, 7-6(2), 6-0

The fact that Kristina Mladenovic, who's had moments of brilliance as a singles player but has always been more of a doubles specialist, lost this match isn't as much of a surprise as is the way she lost it. In a U.S. Open where so few of the top women played, Kiki, ranked 44th at the time was given a #30 seed and faced off against a 20-year-old Russian playing her first Grand Slam event. The veteran was up 6-1, 5-1 and, with four match points, seemed a lock to advance. But a spectacular collapse led her to a tiebreak and a bagel in the last set.

Varvara Gracheva, like Rogers above, couldn't make her luck last much longer, losing in straights to Petra Martic, but she managed a semifinal run at an ITF event in Cagnes-Sur-Mer.

Mladenovic, meanwhile, who acknowledged her breakdown, also took the opportunity to rage against the conditions imposed by the USTA due to COVID, complaining about the daily testing and strict bubble requirements enforced due to her having contact with Benoit Paire, who'd tested postitive at the event. She was then withdrawn from doubles for that same exposure ahead of the second round. While she and partner Timea Babos would go on to win the French Open, her experience at the U.S. was an upset in so many ways.

The Men

The Winner: Lorenzo Sonego d. Novak Djokovic, Vienna, 6-2, 6-1

As we all know, Novak Djokovic does not lose a lot. He began this year with a win streak that rivaled his majestic run in 2011, and if you put an asterisk next to that U.S. Open default, he technically went 37 matches before his first true loss of the year in the French Open final. And, losing to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, you can almost put an asterisk next to that too.

That's what makes his performance against Lorenzo Sonego in Vienna so surprising. The 25-year-old Italian was ranked 44th at the time and actually lost in qualifying, but was granted entry when Diego Schwartzman pulled out of the event. He played well in his early rounds, but still should have been a cakewalk for Djokovic in the quarters. But Sonego simply rolled over his opponent, dropping just three games over the course of just over an hour and earning his first ever victory against a top ten player.

But the win was even more significant than that. It was only the second time Nole won just three games in a match -- the last being in 2005 when, at 17, he lost his first round at the Australian Open to eventual champion Marat Safin. It was also the first time he lost to a lucky loser. And while he'd already locked in the year-end #1 ranking, the loss may have rattled him more than he let on -- he lost in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev in the ATP Finals and couldn't find a way past Dominic Thiem in the semis.

Sonego, meanwhile, went on to the final in Vienna, losing to Andrey Rublev in straight sets, and jumped to a career-high ranking of #32. Certainly more on everyone's radar now, we'll see if he can bring a little more confidence and firepower into 2021.

Honorable Mention: Pablo Carreño Busta d. Denis Shapovalov, U.S. Open, 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(4), 0-6, 6-3

It's not that we shouldn't have expected big things from Pablo Carreño Busta in New York -- the Spaniard cracked the top ten three years ago after reaching the semifinals at the U.S. Open for the first time, and three of his four titles have come on hard courts. Still, after he reached the quarters after the bizarre default by Novak Djokovic, we were all watching to see what he made of the opportunity he was given.

He didn't disappoint -- against a supremely talented and higher seeded Denis Shapovalov, who had already dealt with a couple tough matches at the Open, he regrouped after an ugly 0-6 fourth set to win the decider, ending a four-plus hour match that lasted until after one a.m. He very nearly won his next match too, taking a two set lead on Alexander Zverev in the semis, but ultimately fallin in that nearly three and a half hour contest.

Shapovalov, to his credit, got right back to work, making the semis in Rome and making his own debut in the top ten. It'll be fun to watch what both these guys do in the new year.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the ones to watch -- the young talent on the courts that just started to let themselves shine this season.

And to see all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.

December 6, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Best Hot Streaks

In a year that was stop-and-go for so many reasons, it's a miracle anyone was able to find their footing for any stretch at a time. But a couple players managed to show their consistency over long periods in 2020 and have therefore earned themselves this year's Tennis Spin Awards for...

Okay, obviously Novak Djokovic, who won 26 straight matches between January and early September, might be deserving of this honor in many people's books. But I'm choosing to leave him out and instead focus on players whose win streaks may have been more of a surprise -- after all, Nole has gone 41 wins straight in the past. That doesn't necessarily negate his accomplishment this year, but it certainly feels like something we expect from him more than others.

So here's to the standouts who found strength to thrive week after week, even when all the odds seems stacked against them.

The Women

The Winner: Aryna Sabalenka

The Belarusian has had some hot and cold spells over the years, but she really tends to turn things on towards the end of the seasons. Last year, for example, she picked up trophies in the not-yet-under-seige Wuhan -- her second straight title there -- and Zhuhai, and she wrapped up 2020 with an even more impressive run in Europe where she had to pull off some of the most impressive comebacks of the year.

After an early exit at the French Open, Aryna Sabalenka rebounded from a 1-6 set against Coco Gauff in the first round of the inaugural Ostrava Open in the Czech Republic and a round later, was a point away from losing her first eleven games to Sara Sorribes Tormo before winning the next twelve. She went on to win the title -- I should say titles, she picked up doubles too.

In the last event of the year she was on much more solid ground, dropping only one set to take the title in Linz, her third of the year, to give her a nine match win streak she'll bring into 2021. At #10 in the world now, she's just a shade off her career high ranking, but if she keeps her momentum going, she's well in good shape to move even higher.

Runner-Up: Elena Rybakina

I've talked about the phenomenal consistency of the young Kazakh before, and while she didn't quite keep up her pace after the lockdown, well, who can blame her? She played one event after another at the start of the year, taking off only the week after the Australian Open when there was only Fed Cup going on. And, more impressively, she made the final in every event other than that Major and the one in Doha, where she withdrew after winning her second round. After a slow start in the second half of the year, she did finish runner-up in Strasbourg, her fifth final of 2020, and while her only title came in Hobart in January, she's shown she doesn't tire easily and will be willing to do the work to earn even bigger titles down the road.

Honorable Mention: Simona Halep

It's also worth highlighting the impressive hot streak put together by the former world #1 on either side of the lockdown. The winner over Rybakina in the Dubai final in February, Simona Halep chose to skip the U.S. hard court circuit and instead dominated the clay of Europe for some time. After pulling out of Palermo, she claimed titles in Prague and Rome before getting unceremoniously stopped by Iga Swiatek in Paris, where she was the heavy favorite. In total, she'd won sixteen straight matches, a career best for her, and hopefully she'll be well-recovered enough to resume her winning ways in the new year.

The Men

The Winner: Daniil Medvedev

At the end of last season, I wondered if there was anything that would be able to stop Daniil Medvedev from storming through one draw after another and claiming each and every title. He did, after all, put up one hell of a fight against Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open final and go on to win evens in St. Petersburg and Shanghai right after that.

He wasn't quite so untouchable at the start of 2020, though, losing early in Rotterdam and Marseille after a technical upset by Stan Wawrinka in Australia. He failed to defend a title in Cincinatti and squandered a pretty big opportunity in the New York semifinals before a pretty ugly run in the early fall.

That's when he finally was able to turn things around. At the Paris Masters he ploughed through four top-25 players on his way to his first title of the year, his third at the premier level. And then at his second year-end championships, he turned an 0-3 record from last year fully on its head, winning all his round robin matches -- the only man to do so -- and coming back from a set down in the semis and the title round to claim the title.

Medvedev ends the year at a career-high -- so far -- of #4 in the world, ahead of Roger Federer and not to far behind Dominic Thiem. Will he ride his ten-match win streak to an Australian Open title and push even higher? Well, I'm actually even more sure of his potential now than I was a year ago. And I actually find myself rooting for him this time.

Honorable Mention: Gael Monfils

The veteran Frenchman is one of those players that you can never count out. First in the top ten in 2009, Gael Monfils fell out of the top hundred in 2013, climbed his way back to a career-high #6 in the world in 2016, made the semis at that year's U.S. Open, dropped a bit again, and now stands at #11. So given his longevity, maybe I shouldn't be surprised that he put together an impressive twelve-match win streak before the lockdown. After the Australian Open he picked up titles in Montpelier and Rotterdam before reaching the semis in Dubai. He's been on a bit of a losing streak since the lockdown ended, though, nursing a neck injury in the back half, but my money's on him to come back swinging when he's back on court.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the biggest upsets of the year -- a couple of underdogs that really found a way to shine against the toughest of opponents.

And to see all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.