Mailbag: Examining the Year-End WTA Awards Ballot

Jon Wertheim
Sports Illustrated

Housekeeping

• On last week’s podcast, Jamie Listani and I talk fall tennis.

• Next up this week: Steve Simon, CEO of the WTA Tour.

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• Next week we’ll have seven-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1 Mats Wilander.

Some news from Down Under.

Let's start with something different. In many sports, the media votes on both postseason player award winners and Hall of Fame candidates. The idea of secret ballots strikes me as unnecessarily discreet at best and cowardly at worst. This week, we'll do the WTA:

WTA Player of the Year
Simona Halep (ROU)
Angelique Kerber (GER)
Petra Kvitova (CZE)
Naomi Osaka (JPN)
Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)

• I was surprised there was a fifth candidate. Unless she’s ranked No. 1 or there’s an extraordinary set of circumstances, an MVP must win at least one major. I would also add that in a close year like 2018, it would be better to wait until after the year-end championships to anoint the season’s top player. (Discuss: do you not undermine the heft of the last event of the year when you send out a ballot in advance?)

Be that as it may, we’ll take Halep. The recency effect has us considering Osaka. But Halep is ranked No. 1 for a reason. She lost in the final in Australia before finally bagging her long-overdue first Slam in Paris. She played well throughout the year. She goes about her business with dignity. She doesn’t have the weaponry to hit her way through rough spots—and, yes, she has a regrettable habit of self-abnegation—which is why she’s prone to bad losses. But she’s a player to admire, a worthy champion and our 2018 MVP.

The pick: Simona Halep

Doubles Team of the Year
Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova (CZE/CZE)
CoCo Vandeweghe/Ashleigh Barty (USA/AUS)
Elise Mertens/Demi Schuurs (BEL/NED)
Kristina Mladenovic/Timea Babos (FRA/HUN)

• Nice to see the WTA put doubles this high on the ballot. In a tumultuous year for women’s doubles, we’ll take Krejcikova and Siniakova, the only team to win a pair of majors. And if Siniakova, 22, were bit less combustible, she could—and perhaps will—be a top-10 singles player.

The pick: Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova

Most Improved Player of the Year
Player who finished inside the Top 100 and showed significant improvement throughout the 2018 season
Kiki Bertens (NED)
Julia Goerges (GER)
Daria Kasatkina (RUS)
Elise Mertens (BEL)
Wang Qiang (CHN)
Aliaksandra Sasnovich (BLR)

• It’s strange that this category didn’t consider Osaka, who started the year ranked No. 64 and is currently No. 4. That seems to meet any definition of “improvement.” But short of writing in a candidate, we’ll give the nod to Bertens, the Dutch veteran who won three titles.

The pick: Kiki Bertens

Newcomer of the Year
Player who made Top 100 debut or notable accomplishments during the 2018 season
Amanda Anisimova (USA)
Mihaela Buzarnescu (ROU)
Danielle Collins (USA)
Sofia Kenin (USA)
Aryna Sabalenka (BLR)

• There are lot of strong and diverse stories here. Ascending teens (Anisimova and Kenin), a college star making a successful transition (Collins), a fine comeback story (Buzarnescu). But the choice is Sabalenka and it’s not even close. As we write this, she’ll win more than 50 matches this year and finish inside the top 10. Odds are that next year she’ll be on the ballot as an MVP candidate. A lot to like here. And she doesn't turn 21 until May.

The pick: Aryna Sabalenka

Comeback Player of the Year
Player whose ranking previously dropped due to injury or personal reasons and current season's results helped restore ranking
Belinda Bencic (SUI)
Bethanie Mattek-Sands (USA)
Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS)
Serena Williams (USA)

• She only won 18 matches in 2018, far fewer than some of the other candidates. But how do you not give this to Serena? (And how do you hold an awards show and not include the sport’s biggest star?) At 37, back from childbirth, SW reached a pair of major finals and showed she’s still a force. True, she didn't end the year as she had hoped. But it doesn’t negate her comeback.

The pick: Serena Williams

Next week we’ll do the ATP ballot.

Onward…

Mailbag

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

Hey Jon,

Read your stuff on Jim Courier and did some digging. His head-to-head against his peers is quite impressive—wow, he was a darn good player. I always was put off by the optics of his postage-stamp small racket style with that "weird" forehand and that staccato serve motion. However, it seems he pretty much dominated, or at least held his own, against everyone he played. He may be a bit under-appreciated. Four slams, world No. 1 ranking. You should really show him some love, now that he’s on his way out of the limelight for now. Funny how a player who has a playing style just like him, Jack Sock, can't seem to get it together in this day and age. The mind is a strange thing…
Patrick, Norway

• Show Courier some love? You got the wrong guy. No, seriously, you’re absolutely right. Federer/Nadal/Djokovic have distorted and contorted norms. After them, we will go back to a period when players don’t win double-digit majors. We will go back to a world in which four Slams, 500+ match wins, 23 titles and a top ranking makes for an A+ career. I would add that Jim has been just as impressive post-tennis. I don't want to blow too much smoke here, but he is testament to the power of curiosity.

Did you watch the Beijing final? You rarely see Delpo being outhit by an opponent’s forehand!
@rdafreethinker

• This was sent in the wake of Nikoloz Basilashivili outhitting Del Potro—yes, you read right—and winning the China Open in Beijing. Basil, as he’s nicknamed by lazy typists everywhere, is now inside the top 25 and has won two titles and nearly $2 million in 2018. Spoiler alert: next week, when we take inventory of the ATP awards, he’ll be our most improved winner.

Search for metal straws on Amazon. The toweling-off issue begins and ends with Nadal. He’s never been a favorite for me due to the annoyingly excessive toweling off after every friggin’ point. And why do you play wearing a watch?
@shoredogz

• 1. This is a reference to Jamie Lisanti and I lamenting the decline of the plastic drinking straw, environmentally problematic but so convenient. 2. I'd hardly single out Nadal—I once saw Kei Nishikori go to the towel after his opponent double-faulted. 3. You play with a watch not because you want to be punctual, but because you are incentivized financially to do so.

Didn’t the excessive player cheering for teammates during the Laver Cup seem contrived? When players are far more animated for a teammate during an exhibition than they are for their own play during a Grand Slam, doesn’t it seems contrived and scripted?
Richard, New York

• A few of you mentioned that. I’m less cynical. You could show an unnatural amount of emotion for a moment (or one TV segment) but for an entire weekend? These guys were giddier than geriatrics at a Paul Simon concert.

What about this explanation: in an individual sport that can be insular and lonesome, players relished a team atmosphere. They also were quick to form in-group/out-group bonds that only strengthened as the weekend progressed.

Hi Jon,

What are your thoughts on the future of Madison Keys’s career? There is so much to like about her game, but after another year beset with numerous injuries, I wonder if she’ll ever be able to stay healthy long enough to be imbedded near the upper echelons of the game. I’m worried her career is trending closer to Elena Dementieva’s as opposed to say, Maria Sharapova’s (where I thought she would end up in terms of results, Slams won etc.) Here’s to hoping she can enter the Australian summer healthy and ready to win.
Craig
Fair question. Truth serum: Keys makes us confront the “no-cheering-in-the-press-box” edict. She’s a fundamentally good person. The tennis gods owe her some good karma. She’s so athletic and powerful and talented that it would be a pity if she didn't pick off a major or two. You mention health and that’s a big factor. Already her career has been interrupted mutiple times with injuries and surgeries. For what it’s worth, it says here that her winning a major remains a “when” and not an “if.”

Hey Jon,

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

Quick question: how can we get commentators to stop using the expression "that win is a big scalp” for so and so?

I just heard it at the end of the McDonald/Raonic match in Shanghai and I've heard it used at least half a dozen times at different ATP tournaments since the U.S. Open, all from British commentators. I won't name them because I enjoy their work and I think they are ignorant of how offensive this phrasing is.
Darlene Hebert, Toronto

You just did so eloquently.

What’s the difference between a Zippo and a hippo?
Chris C., Maplewood, NJ

One is a little lighter. (Old joke.)

Shots, Miscellany

• Sad to read this news about the New Haven Open.

• You must read this piece by our friend Ryan Rodenberg on courtsiders:

• Enjoyed this piece by Motoko Rich.

Following a six-week voting period which drew votes from more than 130 countries, the results are in from the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s first ever Fan Vote for Hall of Fame induction.

Of the eight nominated candidates, Chinese tennis great and two-time major champion Li Na received the highest number of fan votes; Wimbledon champion Goran Ivaniševi? of Croatia finished in second; and two-time major champion Mary Pierce of France finished in third.

• Three Thai chair umpires, Anucha Tongplew, Apisit Promchai and Chitchai Srililai, have been banned for life from officiating at or attending any professional tennis events, after being found guilty of match-fixing and betting offences.

Each of the officials admitted to betting on tennis matches at ITF Futures tournaments held in 2017 at which they were acting as chair umpires. They also manipulated scores inputted into the official scoring system, for betting-related purposes and personal profit.

• Congrats to Billie Jean King, who headlines a new campaign for Pearle Vision.

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