November 27, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Breakthrough Stars

Well, folks, we did it.

Somehow, despite all the craziness, all the frustrations, all the heartbreak of this year, we've finally gotten to the end of 2020. Of course, not everything played out the way we expected or hoped, and certainly we all had to make changes and sacrifices in our lives. But it wasn't all doom and gloom this year, and surprisingly there were a couple things worth celebrating -- most of which are far more important than what happened on the tennis courts.

But since that's what I'm here to talk about, over the next few weeks I'll highlight the best -- and worst -- of what our sport had to offer in 2020 in the latest edition of the Tennis Spin Awards. Unlike in years past, though, I'll release the categories one at a time -- from the shining stars to the biggest disappointments (there were, of course, plenty of those) -- starting with...

The Breakthrough Stars of 2020. There were plenty of them -- and, okay, given my years-long hiatus from this blog, some were just new to me, and not to the many devoted fans out there. But regardless, these guys and gals achieved a new level this year and have set the stage for big things, or at least big expectations, when the season resumes. And only time will tell if they live up to the hype, but hopefully they're here to stay.

So let's get to them.

The Women

The Winner: Iga Swiatek

This one was pretty easy. After all, over the years there have been plenty of young stars that have stormed onto the scene, pulling off huge upsets, staging deep runs at big events, even winning a title or two. But you don't often see someone win their very first career trophy at a Major, defeating not one but two Grand Slam champions in the process.

Of course, this year's French Open was unusual for so many reasons, but none of that takes anything away from Iga Swiatek's performance there. The 19-year-old Pole opened with a win over 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova and a few matches later avenged a one-sided loss to top seed and heavy favorite Simona Halep from last year. In the final against recently minted Slam winner Sofia Kenin, she was undaunted and came away with the title without having dropped a set the whole fortnight.

We haven't seen Iga on court since then -- there were after all only two events on the WTA tour post Roland Garros -- so it's hard to know if she has any follow-through, but there are reasons to believe she was no flash in the pan. The 2018 Juniors champion at Wimbledon, Swiatek also made the fourth round in Australia this year, losing to Anett Kontaveit in three tight sets, and put up a nice fight against eventual finalist Victoria Azarenka in the New York third round.

And while there are still a lot of questions about how the tour will resume in the new year, it certainly seems Swiatek will be poised to hit the ground running.

Honorable Mention: Nadia Podoroska

Swiatek may have been the highest profile, and obviously most successful, standout at Roland Garros this year, but Nadia Podoroska ranks a close second. The Argentine qualifier was ranked a then-career high #131 at the start of the French. But she'd been riding a bit of a hot streak, picking up an ITF title in Saint-Malo and reaching the final at the Prague 125K. She got a little lucky with her draw, but a straight-set win over Elina Svitolina in the quarters proved she wasn't just skating by. And, encouragingly, she went on to make quarters in Linz too. Now ranked #47 in the world, she heads into the new season with a lot of points to defend, but if she can stay consistent, she might be able to make herself a mainstay.

The Men

The Winner: Andrey Rublev

To be honest, the 23-year-old Russian probably had his technical breakthrough in 2019, when he stunned Roger Federer in Cincinnati and took his ranking from a low of #115 in the world to #23. But Andrey Rublev came out the gate swinging in 2020 and proved he was not just a lurking threat but an actual force to be watched. After winning all four of his Davis Cup matches at the end of last season, he extended his streak in January, claiming two titles ahead of the Australian Open and then beating David Goffin in the Melbourne third round.

He picked up right where he left off after the lockdown, too, reaching his first Major quarterfinal in New York and then going straight from a title in Hamburg to the quarters again in Paris. In all, he earned five titles in 2020, more than any other man on tour, and won 41 total matches, tying Novak Djokovic for the top spot in that metric.

Rublev finished off the year with his inaugural appearance at the year-end championships, notching a win over Dominic Thiem -- and nearly doing so against Stefanos Tsitsipas -- in the round robins. Now #8 in the world, it sure feels like he's poised for big things. And when we look back on his results from this year, we might realize that this is when it all started.

Honorable Mention: Jannik Sinner

A year ago the 19-year-old Italian was crowned champion at the Next Gen ATP Finals, so it's particularly fitting that he seemed to fill those shoes this season. It took a little while, to be sure -- it wasn't really until the fall that he began to hit his stride. After beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in Rome, he got the better of an ailing Alexander Zverev to make the quarters at the French Open. He ended the year with his first career title in Sofia, lifting him into the top forty to begin 2021. And as we see more and more of him on court, I wouldn't be surprised if he climbed much higher.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: 2020's most improved players. They may not have had their transcendent moments just yet, but it sure looks like they're heading there.

For a look at past recipients of the Tennis Spin Awards click here.

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