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 w├╝nderkind, 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.

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