The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, November 17, 2020

One media member's WTA Awards ballot — Interview: Sloane Stephens Foundation's Gianna Insogna — Must-click women's tennis links

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2020 WTA Player Awards

Today, members of the tennis media received ballots to vote for the 2020 WTA Player Awards. I figured I would discuss my choices now that the season is over.

WTA Player of the Year

Nominees: Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep, Sofia Kenin, Naomi Osaka, Aryna Sabalenka, Iga Swiatek

Between Aryna Sabalenka’s three titles, Sofia Kenin’s rise and Naomi Osaka’s return to Grand Slam glory and off-court trailblazing, I wasn’t 100% sure on who to name, but if strictly focusing on on-court results when it mattered, one was slightly better than the others.

Entering 2020, Sofia Kenin was finding her best tennis, subbing in as an alternate at the WTA Finals and participating in the WTA Elite Trophy. Enter Australia, where the American began the year with a nice win over Anastasija Sevastova before losing in three-sets to Naomi Osaka. Her world changed in Melbourne, where she dropped two sets en route to her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. She then won her second title right before the COVID-19 shutdown in Lyon, where she won four-consecutive three-set matches including a triple tiebreak showdown against Alison Van Uytvanck.

Her return to action wasn’t Grand Slam-worthy with straight-set losses in her “Cincinnati” opener to Alize Cornet and to Elise Mertens in the US Open fourth round. Her career lowlight then came in her Rome opening match with a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Victoria Azarenka. Again, Kenin’s willpower to be the best was highlighted at Roland Garros. Seeded fourth, she advanced to a clay court quarterfinal for the first time in her career, but also her first semifinal and final. She lost a set in four of her first five matches, but was getting better with each match and she rose to the occasion in her straight-set semifinal win over Petra Kvitova. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make is 2-for-2 in Grand Slam finals with the stunning fortnight Iga Swiatek created.

2020 isn’t the average year, especially with Roland Garros just two weeks following the US Open. However, in the three Grand Slams played, Sofia Kenin produced the best results and those were the only events that produced the highest-quality fields. She compiled a 24-9 record in singles and 14-8 in doubles (where she’s also ranked No. 34).

WTA Doubles Team of the Year

Nominees: Alexa Guarachi/Desirae Krawczyk, Nicole Melichar/Xu Yifan, Kristina Mladenovic/Timea Babos, Barbora Strycova/Hsieh Su-Wei

This was also a hard choice because of COVID-19’s shutdown and restrictions, many doubles partners only got together for a couple of tournaments. Again, it boils down to Grand Slam action and Mladenovic and Babos won two of the three Slams. If it weren’t for the French COVID-19 breakout at the US Open, where Mladenovic was withdrawn after being in close contact with Benoit Paire, they honestly could’ve taken it with ease. Their Australian Open title was won without the loss of a single set, including a 6-2, 6-1 destruction over Strycova and Hsieh. Though they were withdrawn from two events, they only had one completed loss on paper aside 18 wins.

WTA Most Improved Player of the Year

Nominees: Jennifer Brady, Fiona Ferro, Ons Jabeur, Elena Rybakina, Iga Swiatek

Iga Swiatek’s Grand Slam run at Roland Garros would certainty qualify her for this award, as would Elena Rybakina’s stunning five finals in 11 tournaments, but for me, there’s been no greater improvement on and off of the court like Jennifer Brady.

Late last year, Brady signed on Michael Geserer and spent her off-season in Germany, another planet compared to sunny Boca Raton, where she spent many years at the Evert Tennis Academy. Right away, the partnership was working and in Brisbane, she qualified and then knocked out Maria Sharapova in a three-set thriller that ended in a final set tiebreak. She followed up that win with her first victory over a World No.1 before losing to Petra Kvitova. Unfortunately, she had to face Simona Halep in the Australian Open first round, but Brady powered through qualifying and reached the semifinals in Dubai. She defeated Hsieh Su-Wei 6-2, 6-2 and Elina Svitolina 6-2, 6-1 back-to-back before earning two more Top 20 wins over Marketa Vondrousova and Garbine Muguruza. Another Top 20 third-set tiebreak win over Alison Riske in Doha was one more Brady highlight before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Brady used the shutdown to work on her fitness and it showed right away where she won her first WTA singles title in Lexington without the loss of a set. A surprise loss in “Cincinnati” to Jessica Pegula right after was a small blip on Brady’s radar, as the American reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at the US Open. She didn’t lose a set en route, which included wins over Caroline Garcia and Angelique Kerber. The result catapulted the former UCLA All-American into the Top 25 and she ended her season with a semifinal finish in Ostrava and an overall 25-9 record. Sure, she didn’t move the most in the rankings compared to the other nominees, but she’s definitely what this award is — most improved.

WTA Newcomer of the Year

Nominees: Leylah Fernandez, Ann Li, Nadia Podoroska, Martina Trevisan

This award is a toss-up. I feel Leylah Fernandez will win this award, but Nadia Podoroska is my choice.

Like I mentioned prior to Roland Garros, she had to all but start from scratch following injuries. She began to show promise of her previous potential late last year with a gold medal at the 2019 Pan-American Games. To secure a spot in the Tokyo Olympics, she needed to earn a Top 300 ranking by cutoff. She began the year No. 258 and won two consecutive $25k ITF titles and reached the semifinals of her third. A semifinal of the WTA $125k in Newport Beach was the biggest highlight this year pre-COVID-19. Upon the tour’s restart, she qualified for Palermo and reached the semifinals of the WTA $125k in Prague before winning a $60k+H ITF title in France. Then, Roland Garros happened.

In Paris, Podoroska qualified for the main draw, only dropping 14 games. She made the most of her second-ever Grand Slam main draw appearance. She knocked out Yulia Putintseva in the second round and then No.3-seeded Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals to make her maiden Grand Slam semifinal. The win launched the Argentine into the Top 50 and she followed that up with another quarterfinal in Linz this past week. She had limited WTA experience prior to 2020 and she seems like she’s ready to stay. Argentina’s ready as well and because of her success, they’re in talks to host more ITF events and possibly a WTA event in 2021.

WTA Comeback Player of the Year

Nominees: Victoria Azarenka, Tsvetana Pironkova, Laura Siegemund, Patricia Maria Tig

While Tsvetana Pironkova’s run to the US Open quarterfinal after not playing for three years is impressive. I don’t think anyone expected to see the sudden rise Victoria Azarenka had after the COVID-19 break.

The former World No. 1 didn’t win a singles match in a year, which is insane. However, she only played two tournaments due to personal reasons. Her loss to Venus Williams in Lexington showed promise, but the play she had in New York was vintage Vika. In “Cincinnati,” she didn’t drop a set until the semifinals, which included a first-round win over Donna Vekic. She then came from behind to beat Johanna Konta in the semifinals before Naomi Osaka gave a walkover in the final for her first title since the 2016 Miami Open. Then, unseeded at the US Open, she defeated Aryna Sabalenka, Karolina Muchova, Elise Mertens and Serena Williams on her way to the final. She started out on fire against Naomi Osaka before the Japanese rose to the occasion. Right away, she flew to Rome and, through exhaustion, defeated Venus again and No. 5 Sofia Kenin 6-0, 6-0. An early loss at Roland Garros certainly stung, but she ended her season with one more final in Ostrava, losing to Sabalenka. Outside of the Top 50 starting her season, she now sits at No. 13 and is part of title conversations again. It’s a no-brainer for her to win this.

This Week in Women’s Tennis

The WTA season came to a close with the 30th Upper Austrian Ladies Linz event, with Aryna Sabalenka taking her third title of 2020 and second consecutive title with a win over doubles partner Elise Mertens.

Following the event, David Kane spoke to Sabalenka about her renewed mindset and Mertens about her plans for Top 10 entry in 2021. He also sat down with Linz tournament director Sandra Reichel to discuss the innovations, traditions and highlights of the tournament’s 30 years.

Two must-reads this week from the collegiate world:

  • USA Today’s Kenny Jacoby, Nancy Armour and Jessica Luther’s investigation on LSU’s athletic department, who is facing some harsh criticism following the mishandling of sexual, emotional and physical misconduct from male students, including top football players. Among the victims are two women’s tennis players, who reported their complaints to coaches and staff with no true justice brought.

  • The Columbia Missourian’s Liam Quinn’s look into the culture of the Missouri women’s tennis program, which prioritized playing over player health leading to nine transfers since the 2015 season.

Kamakshi Tandon penned two good reads this week. The first on the possibility of the Australian Open not being the final tournament of the Australian Summer, due to the travel restrictions and protocols needing to be met and Tennis Australia adding more tournaments to make the travel worth it for players. The second is the effect COVID-19 had on the WTA schedule and players like Alize Cornet struggling in “survival mode.”

Even though Ashleigh Barty hasn’t played since March, she was announced as the year-end No. 1 player. Hsieh Su-Wei was named the year-end Doubles World No. 1.

The Sloane Stephens Foundation was the most recent recipient of the WTA Charities Community Hero grant. The Foundation is also hosting a “Wine with Sloane” fundraiser, partnering with Lifetime Vintage for a Zoom wine night. For 6 half bottles, it’s $250, but there are $25 tickets to be in the Zoom. All proceeds will go straight to the Foundation.

Venus Williams dropped a limited edition collaboration between her brand Eleven and K-Swiss, the first-ever “Club K-Swiss” collection. (Author: Jordaan Sanford)

We’d like to send our condolences to the Chris Evert and her family. The WTA Legend announced her mother Colette passed away at the age of 92. Steve Flink profiled the matriarch with a lovely tribute following the news.

Is it the end of ballkids and player towels? Blair Henley discussed towel handling on tour, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic this year.

Speaking of Queen Henley, if you want tennis gifts for the holiday season, she’s got you covered.

Leylah Fernandez can’t play too many singles tournaments due to the Age Eligibility Rule, but she joined her sister Bianca in Egypt for a few weeks on the doubles court and reached one final:

Two of the most beloved players on tour — Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova — sat down with Matt Fitzgerald to discuss off-court favorites including music, food and players on tour.

Best wishes to Sabine Lisicki, who tore her ACL in her first round doubles match in Linz. Linz was only her second sanctioned tournament since August 2019, following a mononuclosis diagnosis last fall — on top of ankle, knee, shoulder and wrist injuries she’s had to take time off in the past.

Tweet of the Week

Five at the IX: Gianna Insogna, Tennis For America VISTA Fellow for the Sloane Stephens Foundation

Joey: Describe your tennis journey and what made you want to pursue a year in the Tennis for America VISTA Fellow Program?
Gianna: I began playing tennis when I was 5 years old and have loved it ever since. I decided to pick up the sport as a young girl when I saw all 3 of my older siblings playing it. Once I had my first lesson, I never gave it up. Although I enjoyed competing throughout my junior career, the atmosphere of college tennis completely changed the sport for me in the best way possible. I had a new flame of motivation, determination, and hard work burning inside of me that was not as present during my junior career – I fell in love with the sport all over again. When I left my life in Southern California to begin my college tennis career at Fordham University in New York, my teammates became my family. Competing with and for them gave me a whole new purpose when I was out on the court, and I excelled in those 4 years more than I ever did in juniors. After those 4 years were over, I found myself not only struggling to figure out next steps for my career, but also missing being constantly immersed in a tennis atmosphere. I came across the Tennis for America VISTA Fellow Program and realized this would be a perfect combination of life experience to help me transition into the workforce, and utilizing the sport I missed so much into the lives of younger students to help them hopefully have the same academic and athletic college experience that I got to have. 

Joey: Can you walk me through your duties and how a typical day goes?
Gianna: My day-to-day experience working as a VISTA for the Sloane Stephens Foundation is never stagnant; my duties and responsibilities are constantly changing, which is something I love so much about my role so much. My first few months as a VISTA began over summer, when we hosted a virtual summer camp for our students due to Covid-19. We implemented a plethora of different activities for the kids including, but not limited to, writing workshops, mindfulness sessions, games, educational activities, physical workout segments, leadership instruction, health and nutritional lessons, and more. Now that summer has come to an end, my role as a VISTA has turned into me spearheading various projects to help set up SSF’s students for optimal future success in college and/or the workforce. These projects include hosting SSF’s weekly Leadership and Health Program, arranging biweekly match play events to boost students rankings, organizing a college prep resource to help first generation students navigate the college application process, implementing a mentorship program that pairs current college tennis players with SSF students, and more. 

Joey: Though COVID-19 has put a dampener on having everything in person, what have been some of your personal highlights throughout your tenure so far?
Though COVID-19 has put a dampener on having everything in person, some of my personal highlights throughout my tenure so far have definitely been hosting the virtual summer camp and leadership program. This is because this is when I get the most face time with our students, and I love being able to see and interact with them, even if it has to be virtual. These have also been some of my personal highlights because during the summer camp and leadership program is when I get to teach the students. Serving as a teacher, leadership figure, and mentor to the students as I get to impart my academic and athletic knowledge with them has been one of the most rewarding roles of my time as a VISTA. 

Joey: What do you hope to move into once your fellowship is complete?
Once my fellowship is complete, I will be beginning a year long premedical post-baccalaureate program to complete course prerequisites needed to apply to medical school. After that, I hope to be successful in the medical school application process and eventually pursue a career as a physician. 

Joey: What was the best piece of advice you’ve received and who gave it? If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 18-year-old self?
The best piece of advice I have received that was told to me by my brother is to give everything you set out to do 110%. That way, you will not look back in a few years and wonder if you could have done better, tried harder, or ended up somewhere else. If I could go back in time, I would tell my 18-year-old self to stop stressing so much about the future, and live more in the present, because as long as you work hard and have good intentions, everything ends up working out. 

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.