November 30, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Most Improved

Welcome to the second installment of this year's Tennis Spin Awards!

With the formal ATP and WTA seasons all wrapped up, and the 2021 action -- in whatever form it takes -- at least a month away from kicking into high gear, I'm going to spend the next few weeks celebrating the highs and lows of the past year. And next on the docket...

Now I admit that the difference between Breakthrough Star and Most Improved is pretty nuanced, and I'm not necessarily sure there's no overlap. But while these players may not have come away with the biggest titles this year, made huge jumps up the rankings, or set any records, they nevertheless pulled off some big wins and seemed to get to a new level in their play. And, maybe more importantly, they showed a consistency that suggests they might just stay around awhile.

The Women

The Winner: Jennifer Brady

The former college tennis star has been playing on the main tour for a couple years with decent results, but she never really had that career-making run that would put her among the elite in the sport. She spent most of the last four years falling in and out of the low double-digit rankings, starting the 2020 season at #55 in the world.

But Jennifer Brady showed from the start she was ready to change things in the new season, stunning Maria Sharapova and top-ranked Ashleigh Barty in her first event of the year. A few weeks later she ran through qualifying rounds in Dubai and then knocked off third seeded Elina Svitolina, 2019 French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova, and former #1 Garbiñe Muguruza on her way to the semis.

But it was after the lockdown that Brady really hit her stride. She took advantage of an early loss by Serena Williams in Lexington to win her first career trophy and she rode her momentum all the way to the semis at the U.S. Open, one of my only predictions for that tournament to come true, even taking the first set off eventual champion Naomi Osaka.

Brady ends the year at what's by far her best-ever ranking, #24 in the world and the fourth best American. And if she returns to action in the same form, she might just be destined to go even higher.

Honorable Mentions:

Ons Jabeur has been around for years, and like Brady spent a lot of time unable to break into the top fifty. Her career highlight, up to the start of the season, was making the final in Moscow as a qualifier back in 2018, and by losing in the first round there last year, she kicked off this season outside the top eighty. But she was quick to get to work this year -- she pulled off four big upsets in Melbourne, including one that effectively ended Caroline Wozniacki's career, to make her first Major quarterfinal, and then ousted third seeded Karolina Pliskova to make the quarters in Doha. After the shutdown, she notched wins over Madison Keys and Aryna Sabalenka to end the year at a career high #31. Of course, her biggest accomplishment may be the barriers she's broken down for women in her native Tunisia, but the on-court rewards seem to be not far behind.

I'm also going to include Garbiñe Muguruza in this bunch, which is a little strange considering she used to be ranked #1 in the world and has two Grand Slam titles to her name. But she ended 2019 on a cold streak, winning just one match after Roland Garros and fell to her worst ranking in six years. Barely seeded at the Australian Open, she bounced back from a bagel set against Shelby Rogers in her opening round and went on to defeat Simona Halep in the semis. While she ultimately lost in the title match, she managed some nice wins to round out the year, including a defeat of red-hot Victoria Azarenka in Rome. She might not be quite back at her best yet, but she certainly took big strides to get there.

The Men

The Winner: Diego Schwartzman

The 28-year-old Argentine is the perfect example of why title count and rankings moves are not the only determinants of this category's winners. Diego Schwartzman actually won none of his three titles this year, and it too a long while before he surpassed his previous career-best ranking, having sat at #11 in the world for a few weeks in 2018.

But Schwartzman nevertheless had plenty of performances this season that show he's reached a new level. After a heart-breaking loss in the first round of the U.S. Open -- he'd put on a fantastic show to make the quarters there last year -- he pulled off the win of his career against Rafael Nadal in Rome on his way to his first Masters final.

Though he lost that match to Novak Djokovic, he seemed to rebound nicely at Roland Garros, coming back from two sets to one down against two-time finalist and recently-crowned U.S. Open champ Dominic Thiem to make his debut Major semi -- another of the few predictions I got right this year.

He finished off the year with a runner-up finish in Cologne, a trip to the Paris Masters quarters, his maiden appearance at the year-end Finals, and a near-high ranking of #9 in the world. The next step for him will be to start bringing home those big titles, and hopefully after years of slogging away on court, he's finally in a position to do that.

Honorable Mentions:

Finland's Casper Ruud is super young but that didn't stop him from making some pretty loud statements this year. That's not to say he hadn't pulled off big wins before -- he got the better of Nick Kyrgios last year in Rome after having made his first ATP final in Houston a few weeks earlier. Still, outside the top fifty at the start of the year, he had a lot of opportunity to improve. He didn't disappoint, beating both John Isner and Fabio Fognini at the ATP Cup and capturing his first title in Buenos Aires the next month -- the win helped him surpass the highest ranking ever achieved by his father Christian. Later in the year he stunned Karen Khachanov and Matteo Berrettini to make the semis in Rome and got just as far in Hamburg. Now ranked #27 in the world he's got a lot of time left to cut that position further.

Also climbing the rankings, albeit still a little further down the ladder, is Spain's Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who quietly made the fourth round at the U.S. Open this year when ranked just barely inside the top hundred (he was literally #99 at the time). He went on to make the semis at the first Cologne event and the quarters of the second, ending his season with a nice win over Karen Khachanov in the Paris Masters. He's still ranked just outside the top fifty, but he's really starting to learn how to win now. Before the start of 2020 he had a middling 3-10 record on the ATP tour -- he turned that to a better-than-even 13-10 streak this year. And, like Ruud, he's still young enough to think there's even better things on the horizon.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the under the radar stars we should keep an eye on in the new year. They're quiet, but deadly, and could cause a lot of problems for the sport's biggest stars.

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

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