December 12, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Ones to Watch

We've been saying this for sometime, but for some reason it feels more immediate this year. On the men's side, the wall of the Big Three finally seemed to show some signs of cracking as Dominic Thiem broke the seal for Grand Slam glory. And for the women, yet another teenager made her mark on the clay of Paris.

So with the door to the next era of tennis superstars getting pushed even farther open, it's only natural we look at some of the young talent ready to walk through.

Now for this award, I was at no loss of potential candidates, and as you'll soon see, I actually had trouble narrowing down the list. There is happily no shortage of rising stars out there, and we got to see more than a few in action this year.

So let's get to them!

The Women

The Winner: Leylah Fernandez

The young Canadian first caught my attention early in the year when, in her Fed Cup -- now Billie Jean King Cup -- debut she stunned then-world #5 Belinda Bencic in straight sets. But Leylah Fernandez had been a mainstay on the Junior circuit for a while, playing the Australian Open Girls' final in 2019 and winning the title in Roland Garros a few months later.

She made some nice headway on the big girl's tour straight away -- as a qualifier in Acapulco, Fernandez beat eighth seeded Nao Hibino and didn't drop her set until the final, which she lost to a rejuvenated Heather Watson. She went on to beat Sloane Stephens in Monterrey a week later and then again on the other side of lockdown in Lexington.

She wasn't intimidated at the bigger events either -- just days before her eighteenth birthday she won her first main draw match at a Major, defeating veteran Vera Zvonareva in New York, and made her way to the third round at the French Open too. Now ranked #88 in the world, she'll hit the new season at her career high.

She may not be as in the spotlight as younger players like Coco Gauff, or even as accomplished -- the 16-year-old did, after all, win a title last year in Linz. But we, of course, shouldn't necessarily hold everyone up to that standard.

And while people like compatriot Bianca Andreescu and even Iga Swiatek may have had their breakthroughs at ages not much older than hers, I wouldn't be surprised if Fernandez isn't following closely behind.

Honorable Mentions:

Denmark's Clara Tauson, who beat Fernandez in the Australian Open Girls' final last year when she was only sixteen, stunned Jennifer Brady in the first round of the French Open this year. That after making the fourth round at the Prague 125K event, where she beat former Roland Garros runner-up Sara Errani in the process. To close out the year, she scored a win over U.S. Open and Lexington Cinderella Shelby Rogers at an ITF tournament in Tyler, Texas. And at just a hair under eighteen, something tells me we've only just started to see what she can do.

A few ranking points below Tauson, and about a year older, Leonie Kung also had a solid Junior career, reaching the Wimbledon Girls' final in 2018, where she lost to Iga Swiatek. Since graduating to the big leagues, she's spent most of her time on the ITF circuit and playing qualifiers and has yet to reach the main draw of a Major. But she had a nice run at the start of the year in Hua Hin, beating Qiang Wang -- the vanquisher of Serena Williams in Australia -- and Nao Hibino -- who'd taken out Elina Svitolina a round earlier. Though she hasn't done too much since losing that final, I'd like to see her hit the ground running in 2021.

Probably the most accomplished of this group, though, is 23-year-old Paula Badosa, who snuck in a run to the fourth round of Roland Garros this year, beating former runner-up Sloane Stephens and former champion Jelena Ostapenko in the process. She currently sits at a ranking of #70, but clearly has the potential to go higher. Let's see if she can do it right off the bat.

The Men

The Winner: Thiago Seyboth Wild

There was a lot of young talent that presented itself at the end of the year, but I'll get to those. But I'm choosing to give this award to a man who really shined at the start of the season.

Brazil's Thiago Seyboth Wild was ranked out of the top two hundred at the start of the year, but during the Golden Swing put up a nice fight against Borna Coric in Rio and stunned his way to his first ATP title in Santiago just before his twentieth birthday. He beat Cristian Garin and Casper Ruud, two others who made appearances in this year's awards, to do it.

Diagnosed early on with COVID, the first tennis player we know of to say so, he was fully recovered by the time lockdown ended, but the second half of the year was a lot less productive. Seyboth Wild had a nice run at a Challenger event in Aix en Provence, making his way to the final, but lost six matches in a row after that. Hopefully he'll regroup over the next few months. It would be great to see him make a move during the South American circuit.

Honorable Mentions:

Get ready, there are a lot of 'em. But there was just so much focus on these young stars who really scored some big wins in the late summer and fall that I couldn't really leave anyone out. I'll try to make this quick.

Sebastian Korda took out John Isner at the French Open on his way to a fourth round meeting against his idol Rafael Nadal. He finished off his year with his first title at a Challenger event in Eckental, Germany. He's still ranked well in the triple digits, but the former Junior #1 and son of 1998 Australian Open champ Petr, could have an opportunity to add a lot more ranking points in the new year.

Hugo Gaston also had a breakthrough at Roland Garros, coming out on the winning end of a marathon against former champ Stan Wawrinka in the third round, then pushing recent U.S. Open winner Dominic Thiem to a decider after dropping the first two sets. The run helped the 20-year-old wildcard climb from the 200s to just outside the 150s. It'll be fun to see what he can do when the spotlight turns to him.

Lorenzo Musetti didn't make it to the French Open, but he still had a nice clay court season in 2020. The eighteen-year-old qualified for Rome and then also beat Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori before losing to that event's Cinderella Dominik Koepfer. He went on to his first Challenger title in Forli, Italy, with wins over Frances Tiafoe and veteran Andreas Seppi. His successes got him to a year-end ranking of #128, and something tells me he's heading higher soon.

Then there's Brandon Nakashima, the 19-year-old who left UVA last December to turn pro. Hopefully it was a good decision -- he scored his first Grand Slam win in New York with a defeat of veteran Paolo Lorenzi and capped off the year with a Challenger title in Orlando. He's still outside the top 150, but maybe heading higher.

And the youngest on this list, Carlos Alcaraz, at just 17 years of age. He won 14 straight ITF matches at the start of the season while ranked in the 400s, losing in the final in Antalya, Turkey, before winning his first and so far only tour-level match in Rio. He graduated to the Challengers' tour in the back half of the year, with titles in Trieste, Italy, and Barcelona and Alicante, Spain. At #141 now, he's the youngest man in the top 200, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him set even more bars next year.

Well, that was a lot, but hopefully you agree that all these guys and gals deserve some attention. And even more hopefully, they live up to my expectaions.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the greatest letdowns of 2020. In a year so strange, there were bound to be a couple players who weren't able to get on the good side of the tennis gods.

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

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