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.

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