Mailbag: WTA Year-End Awards Picks for 2020

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Hey everyone….

• On the most recent podcast, Tennis Channel czar Ken Solomon talks about the network and sports media in general. Nice to do an in-person event after all these months.

• If you missed it, in light of the allegations against Sascha Zverev (Nikoloz Basilashvili) here’s the ATP’s statement on domestic violence and abuse: “The ATP fully condemns any form of violence or abuse. We expect all members of the Tour to do the same, and to refrain from any conduct that is violent, abusive, or puts others at risk. In circumstances where allegations of violence or abuse are made against any member of the Tour, legal authorities investigate and due process is applied, we then review the outcome and decide the appropriate course of action. Otherwise, we are unable to comment further on specific allegations.”

• Thanks o those of you who donated to the GoFundme linked last week. That was a success and I’m thinking we should do this more. I have a closetful of swag. If you guys have a tennis-themed charity or cause, let me know….

Onward.

Mailbag

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

A few of you noted that we haven’t discussed much about the WTA in recent weeks. I would contend that a) the WTA, unlike the ATP, has no year-end final—and November interest is tracking accordingly; b) the WTA has no top 30 player accused of domestic violence, and—disquieting silence of most tennis stakeholders—that drew a lot of fan chatter. But point taken. In the spirit of fairness and balance, the WTA has sent out its year-end balloting, so let’s start with voting and explanation.

NOMINEES

WTA Player of the Year
Victoria Azarenka (BLR)
Simona Halep (ROU)
Sofia Kenin (USA)
Naomi Osaka (JPN)
Aryna Sabalenka (BLR)
Iga Swiatek (POL)

Pick: Sonia Kenin

An outstanding year from an outstanding player, the only one to reach two major finals (winning one). Yes, you wish she’d had more success at non-major events; and yes, you wish she had not lost a match 6-0, 6-0. (Devil’s advocacy: in some ways this accentuates her season, showing the limits of her game, the deficit of her power and how she really had to bring it in Melbourne and Paris.) In a vacuum—or a head-to-head match— I’d be inclined to take Naomi Osaka. But Kenin had the better overall season in this crazy 2020.

WTA Doubles Team of the Year
Alexa Guarachi / Desirae Krawczyk (USA/USA)
Nicole Melichar / Xu Yifan (USA/CHN)
Kristina Mladenovic / Timea Babos (FRA/HUN)
Barbora Strycova / Hsieh Su-Wei (CZE/TPE)

Pick: Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos

And it’s not even close. Two majors and, absent COVID protocol, it could have been three.

WTA Most Improved Player of the Year
Player who finished inside the Top 50 and showed significant improvement throughout the 2020 season
Jennifer Brady (USA)
Fiona Ferro (FRA)
Ons Jabeur (TUN)
Elena Rybakina (KAZ)
Iga Swiatek (POL)

Pick: Iga Swiatek

Again, not even close. Started the season as a player outside the top 50, best known for her junior career, her fondness for reading and her pleasant, self-effacing quirk. Finished as a major champion and a star-on-the-make.

WTA Newcomer of the Year
Player who made Top 100 debut and/or notable accomplishments for the first time during the 2020 season
Leylah Fernandez (CAN)
Ann Li (USA)
Nadia Podoroska (ARG)
Martina Trevisan (ITA)

Pick: Leylah Fernandez

We smile at the grouping of Trevisan, as a 27-year-old newcomer. But how about Leylah Fernandez, who is 18 and won 20 matches this year?

WTA Comeback Player of the Year
Player who's ranking previously dropped due to injury or personal reasons and current season's results helped restore ranking
Victoria Azarenka (BLR)
Tsvetana Pironkova (BUL)
Laura Siegemund (GER)
Patricia Maria Tig (ROU)

Pick: Victoria Azarenka

Note three mothers. Not sure why Azarenka is on this list—she played a fairly full schedule in 2019 and if she missed events, it was often by her own choosing. Still, she’s impossible to resist. With power, control and wisdom she has returned to the top 15 and came within a set of winning her third major. All hail, Vika. And watch for her in 2021.

I sense I'll get flak for this but #ATPFinals have always felt like a glorified exhibition to me. It lacks prestige of a Slam plus it is possible to win if you lose a match which I don't like. Thoughts?
@KeithSD42

• I wouldn’t necessarily say that. And while I hear the complaints several of you have lodged, I’m not bothered by the absence of fans this year. To me, the great bit of awkwardness is the format. One of the great virtues/flaws of tennis: single elimination. Tournament promoters/sponsors hate it. One bad match and the star attractions clean out their lockers. Half the field is eliminated after the first two days. In golf, Tiger Woods can have a lousy round and still make the cut. (And then shoot on a 10 one hole on Sunday.) In the NBA, NFL and NHL, your team can lose three games, and still advance. Tennis, like March Madness, is kill-or-be-killed. Single elimination is brutal. But it adds to the sense of urgency. Every match truly matters.

This is lost in a round-robin format. When “win or go home” is no longer the mode, the event changes. On balance, we should all take the WTA and ATP Finals any day of the week. The field is first rate. Only top 10 players are competing. The surface is democratic. It’s revealing which players still have the durability to finish strong, so late in the year. But when players can with a tournament without going undefeated, it changes the essence of the event.

Could Andrey Rublev's 2020 be looked at as the COVID-19 version of Magnus Norman's 1999?
@danmartintennis

• Ah, yes. Feels like yesterday. Magnus Norman going from good to great, singlehandedly reviving Swedish tennis. Here’s his 1999 season.

Note the five titles—same as Rublev this year—and 44 match wins, still yielded less than $600,000 in winnings. In 2000, he won five titles as well and reaching the French Open final.

One critical difference between Norman and Rublev: Norman was healthy. It was *after* this run, that he would encounter the knee and hip injuries that would end his career prematurely. (This is worth three minutes of your time.) In Rublev’s case, he already knows from injuries, having missed an entire season—and dealt with the psychological byproduct—on account of a balky back. One suspects this has given Rublev a taste of mortality and imbued him with a sense of how fortunate he is to be playing this well and pain-free.

FAA...buy, hold, sell??? Not sure he's had the best fall. He just lost in the second round in Sofia. It feels like he is not progressing. Also, is he adjusting his schedule to maximize his results?
Joanne A.

• Buy on the dip! Fair question. You’re right: Felix Auger Aliassime did not have the best fall. FAA turned in some disappointing losses this year. He won zero titles; he went a modest 3-3 at the majors. But I credit him with the way he makes long-term investments. He plays a lot and on difference surfaces and in uncomfortable environments. He plays doubles. He takes chances during matches. And he doesn’t turn 21 until August.

The Coric-Tsitsipas battle was the match of the tournament for me! I still get goosebumps re-living it.
@markaprincejr

• I remember watching that U.S. Open match—in a hotel room, no sound, well after midnight, which enhanced the weirdness—and thinking, “Man, if Tsitsipas needed months to recover from a well-played five-set loss to Wawrinka in 2019, when will he get over this? In 2024?”

Yet at the next Major, he was up to his old tricks, playing without inhibition, winning five matches and pushing Djokovic in the semifinals. This was a relief. Only the meanest of tennis ogres wants to see a player suffer. But I wonder if this bounceback, took some of the heft away from that U.S. Open match. From the 1984 French Open final to the Capriati-Seles class at the U.S. Open to, more recently, say, the 2012 Aussie Open final, matches become more important when they double as these career hinge points. If Tsitsipas remains an ascending star and Coric remains a solid 20-30 type player, does it shade how we recall that strange and wonderful match? To me it becomes more of a fluky one-off and less an unforgettable classic.

Much ink has been spilled regarding Rafa's achievements of late, and just as we are ready to move on to something else, ATP announces that Rafa has broken Connors' streak of consecutive weeks in the top 10. For someone who's supposed to have a physically brutal game that hastens wear and tear on the body, Rafa's 790-week stay in the top 10 is utterly amazing. What explains it—the protected ranking system, world-class trainers and physio, something else?
Best, Henry Su, Bethesda, Md.

• The top-line answer: the surpassing greatness of Nadal. Same answer to explain Djokovic’s six years finishing at No. 1, Federer’s 20 majors, etc. Especially in an individual sport, so much redounds to the players. Serena Williams may have great trainers and doctors, but ultimately, she is alone out there on the court.

Specific to this example….it’s funny that in the past, Nadal has agitated for a two-year ranking system. But the current one, rolling over 52 weeks as it does, has clearly served him well. In many seasons, Nadal could roll through the clay season, accumulating so many points that even if he dealt with injury or took the fall semester off from school, he had enough points to sustain him in the top 10 for months. Then when clay season would roll around, he’d grab his lantern, go back down into the points mine and emerge with a wheelbarrow full of lode.

One point (forgive the pun) about the system: there are a finite and fixed amount of points. When Nadal—and Federer and Djokovic—win so often, it leaves only table scraps for everyone else. In some years, Nadal may have been third among the Big Three. But the two guys ahead of him consumed so many points that it prevented the guys 4-10 from bumping Nadal. Which is to say: In a perverse way, he can attribute some of his top 10 longevity to the excellence of his two rivals.

Hi Jon, I am a big fan of your Mailbag and read it faithfully. You probably heard by now that Favre’s father died suddenly of a heart attack and not in a car accident.
Olga

• Thanks. Yes, to clarify, Irv Favre suffered a heart attack while driving in Mississippi. Per the investigator: "It didn't appear that the accident was serious enough to cause him to be unconscious, so that leads us to believe that a medical condition was what caused him to go off the road.”

Here’s a recap of the game that followed.

Also, I should have added, when I worked with Al Michaels on his book, Al devoted several pages to this story. Here’s a guy who has covered everything—the Miracle on Ice, Super Bowls, summer Olympics, Hagler-Hearns, World Series classics, the NBA Finals—and this one Favre game ranks among his most salient sport memories.

Of Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic—the only guys outside of the Big Three to win Grand Slam tournaments from Wimbledon in 2004 through the Australian Open in 2020—who has the most good tennis left? Can you see any of them getting back into the top five and contending for major titles again? Del Potro and Murray don't seem physically capable, Wawrinka has never regained his top form since returning from knee surgery in 2018, and Cilic just seems to be slowly fading away. None of that is too surprising, given their ages. But the Big Three roll on (with the caveat that we have to see how Federer returns from knee surgery.)
Srikanth

• Had never thought of it this way, but, impliedly, anyway, you raise an interesting point: of the active players that have won majors before this year, the Big Three are probably in the best physical shape and have the best chance of winning additional majors. If these were gas gauges—a cliché, I realize—Djokovic would have the most left. Nadal, ironically, would be next. Federer is a wild card; he is the oldest but plays a light style and may benefit from the restorative year away.

Just to be clear: we are leaving Dominic Thiem out of this….of the other players in the 2009-19 list, three have had serious injuries. DelPo is a class of his own, sadly. Murray and Wawrinka have also had struggles so severe they have considered retirement. Each of those three can be dangerous for a day. (Forget not: Murray beat Zverev in the tournament before Zverev nearly won the U.S. Open.) But winning seven best-of-five matches does not appear to be a reasonable ambition.

If I may be seriously pedantic for a moment, with regard to this comment, in this week’s Mailbag….He seems in the words of the immortal Lowell George, "Willin.”…..in a question from Patrick in Norway, I feel compelled to point out, as a fan of Dickens, that Barkis was willin’ a long time before Lowell George was. As I said, sorry for the serious pedantry. Haha.
Gavin

• No apologies required. That’s a good catch. While we’re attributing lines, consider this an unsolicited book recommendation for “Garner’s Quotations.”

Shots, Miscellany

• Your 2021 Australia Swing update.

• Here’s why we love Tennis Channel. Who else does a segment like this?

Naomi Osaka and her activism.

• Press releasing: ”We are pleased to announce today that Ralph Lauren has been named Official Outfitter of the Australian Open. Ralph Lauren will outfit all on-court officials, including the AO ballkids and chair umpires, in a specially-designed collection of apparel and accessories, in a new long-term, global partnership. The partnership will kick off this January at the 2021 tournament. This is the third Grand Slam tournament in the Ralph Lauren portfolio, alongside Wimbledon and the US Open. Other prestigious sporting partnerships for the brand include the US Olympic and Paralympic teams, the PGA of America and the PGA Championship, the US Ryder Cup Team, the US Open Golf Championship and American Junior Golf Association.”

• The USTA announced its new slate of Board of Directors, including the election of Michael J. McNulty III as USTA Chairman of the Board and President. The new Board has been elected to a two-year term that begins on January 1, 2021: Dr. Brian Hainline of the USTA Midwest Section is nominated to serve his fourth term on the USTA Board of Directors; his first as First Vice President. Laura F. Canfield of the USTA Middle States Section is nominated to serve her third term on the USTA Board of Directors; her second as Vice President. Violet Clark of the USTA Midwest Section is nominated to serve as Vice President. Brian Vahaly of the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section is nominated to serve as Secretary-Treasurer on the USTA Board of Directors. Jeffrey M. Baill of the USTA Northern Section is nominated to serve his third term as Director at Large on the USTA Board of Directors. Kathleen Francis of the USTA Eastern Section and J. Christopher Lewis of the USTA Southern California Section (SCTA) are nominated to serve as a Directors at Large. Alan Ostfield of the USTA Eastern Section is nominated to serve his first two-year term as a Director at Large, while Emily S. Schaefer of the USTA Texas Section is nominated to serve as a Director at Large and Kurt Zumwalt of the USTA Pacific Northwest Section is nominated to serve his second two-year term as Director at Large on the USTA Board of Directors.

Liezel H. Huber of the USTA Eastern Section is nominated to serve her third two-year term as a Director at Large on the USTA Board of Directors as an Elite Athlete. Vania King of the USTA Southern California Section is nominated to serve as an Elite Athlete on the USTA Board of Directors. Megan Moulton-Levy of the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section is nominated to serve as an Elite Athlete on the USTA Board of Directors. Patrick J. Galbraith of the USTA Pacific Northwest Section will serve as Immediate Past President on the USTA Board of Directors.