December 3, 2020

The 2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Under the Radar Stars

Wow, can you believe it's December? In what's somehow been both the longest and fastest year in history, we can finally see the other side. But before we get there, there's a little more to say about the tennis season that was, and a few more performances to really highlight.

So let's get to the next round of the Tennis Spin Awards!

These are the players who may not have made a loud splash in 2020, but that's exactly what makes them so dangerous. While we were all distracted by the bright shiny objects stealing the spotlight, these guys and gals chipped away at their matches and quietly pulled off some pretty big wins. And if and when they're given a chance, they might pull off some surprises against the top names in the sport.

The Women

The Winner: Elise Mertens

It's been over two years since the 25-year-old Belgian hit her career high ranking just outside the top ten and a year since she won her last title. But in a severely abbreviated season where so few of the sport's top female players made the trip from one tournament to another -- not to mention from one continent to another -- Elise Mertens managed to rack up more wins than any other player in the WTA.

After the lockdown, Mertens made the final in Prague, the semis in "Cincy", and the quarters at the U.S. Open, where she dealt a pretty one-sided defeat to Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin. She closed out the year with some decent results on the clay, too, and finished as runner-up in Linz, losing there to her doubles partner Aryna Sabalenka -- the two partnered for the title, though, in Ostrava.

Mertens may not have the big weapons of some of the strongest players out there, but she has the workhorsemanship (is that a word) that can allow her to put together a string of wins, and maybe sometime soon, come home with the big trophies.

Honorable Mention: Ekaterina Alexandrova

As I've mentioned a couple times, I'd been out of the game for a few years there and so really missed the rise of some of the sports new stars. So I was surprised to realize, given some of her results this year, that this 26-year-old Russian had been spending so much of her time on the ITF tour and at 125K events.

In fact, Ekaterina Alexandrova wrapped up her 2019 season by taking her second straight title in Limoges -- her third there overall -- and went right on to capture her first WTA trophy in Shenzhen to start this year -- she beat Garbiñe Muguruza, Elena Rybakina and Qiang Wang in the process. At the end of the year, she held tough in a first round against Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open and made the semis in Linz, barely losing there to Mertens. She's a shade off her career high ranking at #33, but something tells me she might be primed for some big wins next year.

The Men

The Winner: Ugo Humbert

You'd be forgiven if you didn't realize the 22-year-old Frenchman captured two titles this year, the first of his career. But ranked just outside the top fifty at the start of 2020, Ugo Humbert upset four favorites, including John Isner and Denis Shapovalov, and a former Grand Slam semifinalist to take home the trophy in Auckland and bookended the season with another win in Antwerp, besting surprise U.S. Open standout Pablo Carreño Busta on the way.

His titles only scratch the surface of his accomplishments, though -- Humbert also notched wins over Fabio Fognini in Rome, Daniil Medvedev in Hamburg, and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Paris Masters. Two wins over top ten players on the year? Pretty nice stat, considering he only played four matches against the group in total.

And at a career-high ranking of #30 heading into the new year, he could be in a place to get a lot more experience against the top guys in 2021. Sure, he has a good number of points to defend right off the bat, but he could well be in seeding territory when the Australian Open does eventually begin. And while he hasn't yet had a truly deep run at a Major -- he made the fourth round at Wimbledon last year, but that's his best yet -- he seems to be ready to break through. And the sport's elite should know better than to write him off.

He is, after all, a man of many talents...

Honorable Mention: Cristian Garin

The young Chilean is setting himself up to be a pretty solid force on the clay courts. After an early exit in Melbourne, he put together a nice run during this year's Golden Swing, picking up titles in Cordoba and Rio before withdrawing in the quarters in his own Santiago. In the back half of the year, he got his feet back under him on the clay of Hamburg to make the semifinals. Yes, he is turning into a bit of a specialist, with his 67% win rate on the dirt far outpacing that on other surfaces. But we've seen others thrive under exactly those parameters -- I'm not saying he'll win the French next year, but he could certainly do some damage if we aren't paying attention.

Be sure to come back for more Tennis Spin Awards. Up next: the players who put together some of the best win streaks on tour this year -- and, surprise! None of them are named Novak Djokovic!

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

No comments: