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  • In his latest mailbag, Jon Wertheim goes through the ATP's year-end awards ballot, explains his picks and answers your questions.
By Jon Wertheim
October 17, 2018

Hey everyone…

• The most recent podcast guest: WTA CEO Steve Simon.

• Next up, the great Mats Wilander.

• Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe headlined a great Strokes of Genius event in L.A. last week. Thanks to all who came by

Okay, last week we did a public ballot of the WTA Awards. This week, we’ll do the men.

Player of the Year

• Oddly this wasn't included in the ATP’s official categories. A bit strange, this. Wouldn't “MVP” be the single most obvious category? It would be like having the Oscars without Best Picture. Be that as it may—and it may!—we’ll do our own. The nominees are:

Rafael Nadal
Roger Federer
Novak Djokovic
Let’s Not Insult Anyone’s Intelligence by Offering a Fourth Option

 “He who wins the most Slams, wins MVP” is a presumption that must be overcome. But this year it cannot. True, Djokovic is not No. 1 in the rankings right now. And true, he had a dismal first half of the year. But from July to the present, he has been virtually unbeatable—virtually, as in one defeat—and in addition to winning two majors, he’s won a pair of Masters 1000s as well. Credit Nadal for his annual clay romp. Credit Federer for winning a major and continue to be a force at age 37. But Djokovic is our clear player of the year.

TPG via Getty Images

Doubles Team of the Year

Again, a category that was strangely absent. We’ll take Mike Bryan and Jack Sock, continuing with the Djokovic reasoning. Rankings be damned, two Slams is a tough premise to be overcome. While we’re here, we’ll nominate Jack Sock for “Strangest Year” honors. His singles game is deep in hiding, his ranking likely to plummet like Tesla stock. (A top-10 seed at the 2018 Australian Open, he will likely have to qualify for the 2019 edition.) Yet during this annus horribilis, he’s established himself as the world’s best doubles player. Go figure.

Tim Clayton - Corbis/Getty Images

Most Improved Player of the Year 

From the ATP’s award guidelines: “To the player who reached a significantly higher position in the ATP World Tour Rankings and who demonstrated an increasingly improved level of performance throughout the year.”

Nikoloz Basilashvil
Marco Cecchinato
Borna Coric
Alex de Minaur
Kyle Edmund
Nicolas Jarry
Daniil Medvedev
John Millman
Stefanos Tsitipas 

• “Improvement” is always—perhaps necessarily—a vague term. Is Stefanos Tsitsipas improving as he goes from No. 91 to 15? Or is he a  talented young player amassing ranking points, getting into main draws and steadily climbing the charts? In other words, for young players—including de Minaur, Slick Nick Jarry and perhaps even Coric—it's unclear if they are upgrading their games or simply on an expected course of upward mobility.

I’m more inclined to confer this award on a veteran who’s had a real uptick, who has turned in a strong year at the office and moved to a more exclusive neighborhood. My vote goes to Basilashvili. Long a powerful player but with few notable results, he spent several years in the 50-150 range, making a living but seldom a mark. This year, at age 26, he’s married his power with patience and has been terrific. Two titles, nearly $2 million in earnings (more than double his career prize money through 2017) and a chance of finishing in the top 25.  He may soon challenge John Isner for “Best Georgian on the ATP Tour.”

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Comeback Player of the Year

“To the player who has overcome injury/illness in reestablishing himself as one of the top players on the ATP circuit.”

Novak Djokovic
Jason Kubler
John Millman
Kei Nishikori
Yoshito Nishioka 

• We’ll go unexpected here. Djokovic is a lazy choice. Plus he is our MVP and we like to limit awards to one per person. Nishikori is the other big name, but he finished 2017 at No. 22—it’s not as though he had to go back to qualifying draws. (Yes, he played Newport Beach and Dallas but that was mostly to get matches under his belt, not because he had to.) Our vote goes to Kubler, whose career has been one perpetual hospital form. He was touted as a future star as a junior and then his body went into full dissident mode. Finally, at age 25, he is (somewhat) healthy and has improved from a 2017-low of world No. 337 to his current 91st ranking. Still a long way to go, but for a player who considered quitting many times, a top-100 appearance is real achievement. Read more here.

Getty Images

Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award 

“To the player who, throughout the year, conducted himself at the highest level of professionalism and integrity, who competed with his fellow players with the utmost spirit of fairness and who promoted the game through his off-court activities”

Choose four candidates and list in order of preference e.g. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th. 

Kevin Anderson
Hyeon Chung
Juan Martin del Potro
Grigor Dimitrov
Novak Djokovic
Roger Federer
John Millman
Rafael Nadal
Kei Nishikori
Milos Raonic
Diego Schwartzman
Denis Shapovalov
Dominic Thiem

• I’ve never liked this category. Unless you’ve been on the other side of the net—or in the locker room— are you really well-positioned to vote on someone’s sportsmanship? This usually comes down to, “Who’s my favorite player?” which, of course, is terribly, unavoidably subjective.

Pressed for a vote, I’d say Denis Shapovalov simply because his great act of sportsmanship was thoroughly spontaneous. 

Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Hi Jon,

Thought experiment:  Kerber>Azarenka at this point in their careers.  Azarenka objectively has more tournament victories and perhaps the more attacking game, but in your parlance, Slams are the coin of the realm, and Kerber now has her beat.  Discuss! 
Jon B., Seattle

• Interesting. And it gives us a chance to note that Kerber, mysteriously, parted ways with coach Wim Fissette on Tuesday. This the year Kerber revived her career and, oh right, also won Wimbledon. (A split considerably more shocking than Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson.)

Anyway, Azarenka vs. Kerber is interesting. Can we wait to see if Azarenka ever gets her mojo back? (She’s No. 56 right now, mostly a function of her sparse schedule.) If not, I still think I’m inclined to disagree with you. Kerber has more majors (and beat Serena in the final of two of them). But Azarenka has more weeks at No. 1, more titles, more Olympic success and—you guys know I am a sucker for this as a surprisingly strong indicator—more career prize money: $28.8 million to $26.7 million.

Tennis
Mailbag: Examining the Year-End WTA Awards Ballot

How about Canadian Rebecca Marino as Comeback Player of the Year? Retired for five years after burn out. Came back in February. Was 917th…now 189th. A 728 notches leap! Played 63 matches, has a 51-12 record. Won five titles out of six finals. She has all of my votes!

@paulrivardtva

• Great write-in choice. Marino is No. 187 so there’s still some “coming back” to be done. But I’m all for it

Hi Jon,

I hadn't written anything for a bloody long time...but then, they gave me a vote for the Hall of Fame!

On the role that fan votes play, the vague criteria, and one guy's vote

Cheers,
Cam Bennett, Canberra, Australia

• Let’s talk Hall of Fame next week. Feel free to send me your picks.

Jon,

I enjoyed the Simon interview but was surprised and disappointed that you didn’t push him on the Serena stance after that U.S. Open final, particularly given that afterwards you said you thought the WTA’s comments were ill-conceived. Why not ask him to explain himself? He threw officiating under the bus after that final and did it again in this interview, without putting forth any evidence at all for the stance that female players are treated differently by umpires. He comes across as unprepared to stick up for the values of the sport if it happens to cross with one of those stars—particularly Serena and Sharapova.
David

• A few of you dinged me for that, proof that L’Affaire Serena still lingers. I don’t know. I suppose I could have challenged Simon more, though I’m not sure a podcast is necessarily the format.

Serena—and then the WTA—complained about a perception, namely a sense that men and women aren’t treated equally by chair umpires. Some people found this more sympathetic than others. But I’m not sure the reflexive response to a bias charge is, “prove it.” I’m not sure the best way to address someone’s feelings is to negate them with cherry-picked data.

Again, my position here: it’s not an either/or situation. Serena bears some responsibility for her behavior. This was an avoidable situation she chose not to avoid. But I also think there’s little question that the umpire could have handled the situation, particularly the “third whistle” differently.

Hi Jon,

Indulge me for a minute:

Brees is now the NFL’s all-time leader in career passing yards.

Federer is now 97 matches behind Connors for the all-time career match win records.

I think Federer is a near slam-dunk to take this title.  I wrote to you about this a few years ago and, without checking the record, I believe you took the position it would not happen.  Federer went 52-5 in 2017 and 37-6 so far this year.  It is a slam dunk.  He will hold this record unless he retires in 2019.  And Nadal has a good chance of taking the record from both Connors and Federer.  Nadal is currently 338 match wins away from Connors.

P.S.  The two milestone records for an NFL QB are career passing yards and passing touchdowns.  The career slams record of course is one milestone in tennis.  Wouldn't the career match-win record be the next-most prestigious?
Jim Yrkoski, Silver Creek, Neb.

• Indulge me to say that “passing yards” is the most statistically flawed category in sports. You know who amasses passing yards? Quarterbacks who need to play catch-up because their teams have crappy defenses. on teams with crappy defenses, who need to play catch-up. And quarterbacks who don’t need to preserve leads or drain down the clock. Tom Brady will never set passing yard records because he’s seldom trying to make up a deficit or throwing deep downfield in the fourth quarter. No offense to Brees, a Hall of Famer—and, in my interactions, a delightful guy—but this “record” seems awfully fraught to me.

Where were we? Oh, right. I suppose Federer could catch Connors. But it’s a bit of apples and oranges. Different eras, different tours, different commitment requirements. If Federer prioritized this and played smaller events, he could rack up titles. I suspect—and his schedule confirms this—that he would rather enter events where the competition is stiffer but the trophies are more meaningful.

Tennis
Djokovic Wins Fourth Shanghai Masters Title With Victory Over Coric

Shots, Miscellany

• A day in the life with Steve Weisman.

• Big USTA Player Development news released today. Kathy Rinaldi was named head of women's tennis, replacing Ola Malmqvist, who will become director of coaching. Kent Kinnear (pride of Indiana) was named the head of men's tennis, filling the position Brian Boland left in May.  All three internal promotions.

• The USTA National Campus has been selected as the host for the next three Junior Davis Cups and Junior Fed Cups by BNP Paribas beginning in 2019. This marks the first time that the premier 16-and-under world team competitions will be held in the United States since the 1994 Finals staged in Tucson, Ariz.

• All hail the China Open tournament director—a mensch, as they say in Beijing.

Coach’s Corner with Peter Smith

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