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Mailbag: Handing Out the 2021 WTA Year-End Awards

Hey everyone…For this week’s column, we reveal our 2021 Awards for the WTA. These are the candidates they furnished. We’ll do the XY chromosomes, the ATP, next week….


WTA Player of the Year

Ashleigh Barty (AUS)
Barbora Krejčíková (CZE)
Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP)
Naomi Osaka (JPN)
Emma Raducanu (GBR)
Aryna Sabalenka (BLR)
Iga Świątek (POL)

• This is a two-player race. So much so that it’s borderline insulting that there are seven candidates here. There’s probably some edict whereby all major champions are on the ballot. (Hence you have Osaka, who has played five tour matches since June; and Raducanu, who we’ll hear from later, but spent most of the season outside the top 100.) There’s probably another edict whereby you include the stalwarts. All praise to Mugu, Świątek and Sabalenka for solid seasons. But what benefit does it serve touting the candidacy of players who won no majors—and reached no finals—among them.

The fundamental question: Is this a singles MVP or all-round MVP? If the former, you respect the rankings and go with Barty. While her Wimbledon win marked the highlight, she embroidered her season with plenty other achievements. They were both tangible—trophies on various surfaces and various events including Cincy, Miami and Stuttgart. And intangible—her maturity, persistence, professionalism spending most of the year on the road, isolated and living out of a bag, on account of COVID-19 protocol.

If this MVP is a composite award—and let’s stop to pause and acknowledge that we should be comfortable with the vague criteria, allowing as it does for different views and debate—Krejčíková is your winner. Like Barty, she had an obvious pinnacle, the 2021 French. But there were plenty of other highlights. She doused any “one-hit wonder” talk by winning scads of matches post-Paris. And, of course, there is her standout doubles play, a typically peerless year that saw her (and Kateřina Siniaková) win majors, Olympic gold and the WTA Finals. In all, she played almost 120 matches—one every third day. And she did it all as a consummate pro.

Close call here, but I would give the nod to Barty. The ranking doesn’t lie. Her titles—both size and variety--don’t lie. Her passport, denoting months spent on the road, doesn’t lie. (She even gets a few bonus points for her doubles aptitude.) Two worthy candidates. We’ll take the one ranked No. 1 in singles.

WTA Doubles Team of the Year

Shuko Aoyama (JPN) / Ena Shibahara (JPN)
Alexa Guarachi (CHI) / Desirae Krawczyk (USA)
Hsieh Su-Wei (TPE) / Elise Mertens (BEL)
Barbora Krejčíková (CZE) / Kateřina Siniaková (CZE)
Nicole Melichar-Martinez (USA) / Demi Schuurs (NED)
Samantha Stosur (AUS) / Zhang Shuai (CHN)

• Discount double Czech. Krejčíková and Siniaková. In addition to finishing No. 1, the Czechs took gold in Tokyo. And while she didn’t have the year of her partner playing solo, do note that Siniaková is a top 50 singles player.

WTA Most Improved Player of the Year

Player who finished inside the Top 50 and showed significant improvement throughout the 2021 season

Paula Badosa (ESP)
Leylah Fernandez (CAN)
Ons Jabeur (TUN)
Anett Kontaveit (EST)
Barbora Krejčíková (CZE)
Jessica Pegula (USA)
Maria Sakkari (GRE)

• Spoiled for choices here. You really can’t go wrong. Jabeur? Absolutely. Badosa? Great. Kontaveit? Thanks to a crusher of a fall, she almost inside the top 10. And it bears mentioning that in this Year of COVID, a surge comes freighted with even more significance. Some of the candidates are still young and enjoyed a simple upswing. Some were finally healthy. Others (name-check Pegula) were mid-career players who essentially said, “I am not content where I am and am determined to change that.” We’re partial to that lane. And so it is the vote goes to Krejčíková. She was in her mid-20s. She made plenty of money as a doubles star. So she made a conscious decision to say, “I should be able to achieve comparable success in singles.” And she has.

WTA Newcomer of the Year

Player who made Top 100 debut and/or notable accomplishments for the first time during the 2021 season

Ann Li (USA)
Camila Osorio (COL)
Emma Raducanu (GBR)
Liudmila Samsonova (RUS)
Mayar Sherif (EGY)
Clara Tauson (DEN)

• Some sneaky choices here. Osorio—still a teenager—won 35 matches. Samsonova proved herself to be a big-match player, not least in the BJK Cup finale. Ann (Queen of Prussia) Li remains criminally underrated. But how do you not vote for Raducanu? She comes from the tennis hinterlands (as opposed to the Netherlands) to reach the second week of Wimbledon. Then she backs that up by qualifying for the U.S. Open ….and then, of course, stringing together seven matches and WINNING THE DAMN TITLE. The most remarkable tennis story in recent memory. And while we worry a bit about the expectations (and potential Minsky Effect) facing her in 2022, she sure gets this award for 2021.

WTA Comeback Player of the Year

Player whose ranking previously dropped due to injury or personal reasons and their current season's results helped restore ranking

Ana Konjuh (CRO)
Sania Mirza (IND)
Carla Suarez Navarro (ESP)
Elena Vesnina (RUS)

• We’re glad to see “personal reasons” included in the category description. It’s an acknowledgement that life happens to tennis players and there are excused absences for reasons other than injury. (Note the candidates returning from maternity leave.) Congrats to all those who boomeranged back. But really, is there a choice other than Suarez Navarro? She returns from a cancer diagnoses and treatment; and, in her WTA final season, doesn’t just play, but plays spectacularly at times—trivia: name one of the two players to take a set off Barty at Wimbledon? For what it’s worth (plenty, we would argue) CSN is also in the running for Most Popular Player with Colleagues. Male and female. Young and veterans. Spanish and otra/otro. When player after player tells you how much they like a colleague, that should tell you something.

Write-in awards

• Not exactly a confrontational or grandstanding figure, Steve Simon should accept an award on behalf of the entire WTA Tour for his courageous, moral stance against China. Putting principle before profit occurs all too uncommonly in this sphere. The WTA distinguished itself and ought to continue applying pressure.

• Naomi Osaka may have wished she could re-do her initial statement about her mental health challenges, which appear to be triggered by the press conference. By all means, play a let. Her subsequent statements have been honest, poignant and inspiring others inside and outside sports. If, apart from winning major No. 4, her legacy from 2021 was reinforcing a message, “It’s ok to not be ok,” it was a worthwhile year.

Trajectory is Just Fine Award: Coco Gauff. Note that this is the first reference of her. The WTA nominated her for zero awards. Another teenager won a Major and passed her in the rankings. Meanwhile, Gauff is 17, ranked No. 22, beating top players, committed to singles and doubles and continues to reveal herself to be thoroughly smart, cool and well-adjusted. If this were a stock, now would be a good time to fortify your holdings.

Coach of the Year: Strange that the WTA continues to push coaching on the public…and then wouldn’t make Coach-of-the-Year an award. If we follow the rankings, Craig Tyzzer ought to win de facto. (If your player is not No. 1, why wouldn’t you be the CoY?) And that works. He is the consummate pro, a coach in the image of his player. Plenty of other notable candidates here, from Conchita Martinez (Muguruza) to David Witt (helping Pegula pierce the top 20) to Dmitry Tursunov (aide-de-camp to surging Anett Kontaveit).

Media Personality of the Year: Lindsay Davenport. There might be parity in the women’s game. As an analyst, LD is out here playing a different sport.

Shot of the Year: Belinda Bencic won a singles gold in Tokyo. She killed it playing the lead in Licorice Pizza. And she got up off the ground (literally) to win this point: Watch this: Bencic's Berlin Hot Shot a contender for Shot of the Year.

Tournament of the Year: Guadalajara. With a clock ticking for the WTA to salvage the year-end finals—the tour’s primary source of revenue—and the incumbent host city of Shenzhen both COVID-problematic and morally-problematic, an unlikely bidder surfaced. Guadalajara couldn’t offer the prize money of China; but could offer plenty China could not: soul, energy and—get this—fans in the stands. The result? A fun and festive year-ender and reminder that tennis can be nimble. And not one player (or, critically, their agents) complaining about the drop in prize money.

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