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 Garbiรฑe Muguruza in the second round. She then went on to take out Donna Vekic and Alizรฉ 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.

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