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Beyond the Baseline

Simona Halep vs. Sloane Stephens: Who improved the most this year?

Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens Simona Halep (left) won six titles, while Sloane Stephens did her damage at the Slams. (Koji Watanabe/Getty Images; Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Simona Halep won the WTA's Most Improved Player Award, beating out Sloane Stephens, Kirsten Flipkens, Jamie Hampton, Jelena Jankovic, Carla Suarez Navarro and Alison Riske. Halep's incredible season made this choice by the media seem like a no-brainer to me.

However, Matt Cronin of Tennis.com sparked some discussion when he tweeted that Stephens should have won.

https://twitter.com/TennisReporters/statuses/403646747399819264

https://twitter.com/TennisReporters/status/403647562122403840

So who should have won the WTA's Most Improved Player award -- Halep or Stephens?

Here's how their seasons stack up:

Simona Halep

• Record: 53-17

• WTA titles: 6 (Nuremberg, 'S-Hertogenbosch, Budapest, New Haven, Moscow, Tournament of Champions)

• Grand Slam performance: Australian Open -- first round, lost to Sloane Stephens; French Open -- first round, lost to Carla Suarez Navarro; Wimbledon -- second round, lost to Li Na; U.S. Open -- fourth round, lost to Flavia Pennetta

• Record vs. top 10: 4-5, with wins over Agnieszka Radwanska, Marion Bartoli, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova

• Rankings rise: No. 47 to No. 11

• Prize money: $1,222,446

The skinny: Based on the numbers tied to her improvement, Halep appears to be the convincing winner. The 22-year-old Romanian began the season ranked below Stephens yet finished one spot ahead of her, at a career-high No. 11. She also won six titles (on a variety of surfaces), second most behind Serena Williams' 11, after entering the year with none. The former French Open junior champion, who started slowly this season amid injuries, ranked third on tour with 53 match victories (against 17 losses), or seven more than she had in her career (46-55) before the season.

Of course, the knock on Halep was her performance at the Slams. She lost to seeded players in the first round of the Australian (Stephens) and French Opens (Suarez Navarro) and won a single match at Wimbledon before falling to the sixth-ranked Li. When she finally got her ranking up to be seeded at the U.S. Open (by contrast, Stephens was seeded at all four majors), she blew a big opportunity after her section of the draw broke up, losing to the unseeded Pennetta.

Sloane Stephens

• Record: 39-23

• WTA titles: 0

• Grand Slam performance: Australian Open -- semifinals, lost to Victoria Azarenka; French Open -- fourth round, lost to Maria Sharapova; Wimbledon -- quarterfinals, lost to Marion Bartoli; U.S. Open -- fourth round, lost to Serena Williams

• Record vs. top 10: 2-9, with wins over Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova

• Rankings rise: No. 38 to No. 12

• Prize money: $1,498,608

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The skinny: Halep may have had the more consistent year, but Stephens had the higher highs. You can't ignore how well she fared at the Slams. The 20-year-old American was one of only three players to reach the fourth round or better at all four majors (Williams and Radwanska were the other two). She had only two wins over top-10 players, but they were big ones, ousting Williams at the Australian Open and Sharapova at the Western & Southern Open, in what would be Sharapova's last match of the season.

The knock on Stephens, aside from her performance at tour events (she didn't make a final this year and has yet to in her career), is that her success at the majors was due to relatively easy draws. She did not face a top-40 player until the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, a top-90 player until the fourth round of the French Open and -- notwithstanding an exhausted Jamie Hampton -- a top-60 player until the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. And then there are the claims that Stephens' two big victories, against Williams and Sharapova, came against injured opponents.

My pick: Halep. This isn't an award for "Best Season" or "Most Potential" or "Most Likely To Win a Slam." The question here is who improved the most, and while Stephens is to be commended for taking advantage of her opportunities at the majors, Halep, with six titles, effectively went from being a non-factor to a real threat on tour.

What do you think? Vote in our poll and sound off in the comments.

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