December 30, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Players of the Year

We've made it, guys! Just a few more days left of the craziest and most life-altering year in my recent memory and then we can finally put 2020 to bed!

Of course, that's not to say it's been all bad this year, and hopefully you've enjoyed my celebration of the best the tennis world had to offer. There's only one more award to hand out, and it's the big one!

It was harder to decide on these winners than I thought, and you might not agree with who came out on top. But you can't doubt all these guys and gals did some great things for the sport this year.

And hopefully it's a sign that we can expect even bigger things from them in 2021.

The Women

The Winner: Sofia Kenin

The young American had been on my radar since stunning Serena Williams in the third round of the French Open last year, but she'd racked up more significant wins than just that. A round earlier she'd beaten a still-on-the-rise Bianca Andreescu, and over the next few months she'd notch wins over newly-minted world #1 Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka.

Still, seeded fourteenth at this year's Australian Open Sofia Kenin was far off the radar. But while all attention was paid to the other American ingenue Coco Gauff, she powered through their fourth round match-up and kept her momentum up through the rest of Week Two. In the final she took on two-time Major winner Garbiñe Muguruza, and though she was ranked higher on paper she was by far the experiential underdog. That didn't daunt her though -- after losing the first set she held strong into the finish, picking up her first Grand Slam and rocketing to a #7 ranking.

Now I admit, I had my concerns over Kenin. While she did pick up a title in Lyon, she also lost her opening matches in Doha and Dubai and even posted a surprise loss in a winnable Fed Cup match. And then, of course, was that embarrassment in Rome, where she was double bageled by Victoria Azarenka.

It would have been easy to write her off if not for what happened next -- in a much more closely contested run at Roland Garros, the then-21-year-old made a run to her second Major final of the year. While she may have lost that battle, the feat was nevertheless impressive -- there are, after all, only a select few women who've been able to reach two Grand Slam finals in one year. Adding to that the other complications of 2020 just makes Kenin's accomplishment all the more impressive.

Can she repeat her success in the year's to come? Well, her run in Paris certainly gives me hope she was no one-hit-wonder. And if she comes out swining, there's plenty of reason to believe we've only just begun to see what she can do.

Runner-Up: Naomi Osaka

If you take into account everything a player does off the court, there's no doubt Naomi Osaka made the most impact of anyone else this year. Not one who previously sought the spotlight, she really came out of her shell for the sake of social justice and the statements she made on her way to a second U.S. Open title may not have been loud, but they were certainly powerful. And her efforts were recognized and praised across the spectrum, earning her one of Sports Illustrated's Sportspeople of the Year and a title far more important than one any trophy represents: advocate and changemaker. Here's hoping her work delivers for the long term.

The Men

The Winner: Rafael Nadal

In many ways Rafael Nadal had one of the least prolific years of his career. With a drastically abbreviated and weirdly placed clay court season and the decision not to defend his U.S. Open title he played far fewer tournaments than he's used to, especially on the surfaces where he does the most harm.

In all, his two titles -- one in Acapulco, which I'd honestly forgotten he'd won, the other of course at Roland Garros -- meant this year tied 2016 for his lowest trophy count since 2005. (The only year he won fewer was 2004 when at 18 he scored his maiden crown in Sopot.) But the other records he set make all the difference.

I've gone through these before -- 13 French Open championships, 100 wins on those courts, 20 Grand Slam titles, 1,000 match wins, and maybe most impressively, nearly 800 straight weeks ranked in the top ten, more than any other man in history. Some of those achievements may never be matched, at least not for a very long time -- and he's not done yet!

Nadal might very well break the tie for Major trophies next season, he's only adding to his accomplishements in Paris and at #2 in the world right now, every week that passes just widens the gap between him and Jimmy Connors for weeks in single digits -- as mentioned, by my count Dominic Thiem is the player closest to passing him, and even that would take ten years -- and only if Rafa drops to #11 right now!

So what if Nadal didn't win as many trophies as Novak Djokovic or Andrey Rublev this year? It's fine that he didn't have the big breakthrough we saw from Thiem. And that the trophies in Bercy and the year-end championships continue to elude him, and that he didn't finish the year at #1 in the world. This honor is less about what he didn't do, and more about what he did.

And he's shown that he's in no hurry to stop doing more.

Runner-Up: Novak Djokovic

Of course, the guy who did end the year at #1, who won four titles and tied for most match wins on the season, deserves a little credit too. I don't begrudge Novak Djokovic any of his successes this year, and I'm not even dinging him for somehow taking up the mantle of tennis's bad boy. The Serb's 37 match win streak from January through October -- yes, I'm discounting that U.S. Open default -- is astounding, and some surprising losses at the end of the season don't diminish that. He may have fallen behind in the race for Grand Slam records, but he's arguably the fittest and most threatening of the Big Three these days, and I wouldn't be surprised if he made a big play for them next year. Could he sweep the Majors in 2021? Well, let's just say I wouldn't put it past him.

Well that does it for this year's Tennis Spin Awards. I hope you liked reading about them as much as I enjoyed bringing them to you. And as we inch closer to a brand new tennis season, let's hope we're all able to stay safe, healthy and enjoy all the excitement the sport has in store!

Be sure to check out all the winners this year and in years past here.

And have a very Happy New Year!

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