It's the awards season in tennis, and there isn't a more coveted title than Player of the Year. It’s an individual sport's answer to the Most Valuable Player award in team sports but, regrettably, it's rarely the horse race that it sometimes is in those league-based team sports. That's because of the importance of the Grand Slam events, and the extent to which they determine the Player of the Year.
In any year when one player wins more majors than his or her rivals, he (or she) is almost a lock for Player of the Year. That shuts down the debate pretty effectively. And it's too bad, because many great, sustained performances go unremarked because of our addiction to the majors. It’s fun to contemplate just who might be a worthy choice for PoY if you eliminate from consideration the obvious choice. Call it the Player of the Year runner-up derby. Let’s take a shot at it:
ATP: Rafael Nadal is the uncontested Player of the Year choice, but whom would you choose if you exempted him from consideration? I find it hard to bestow the honor on Novak Djokovic, although he clearly had the second-best year. Great as he is, Djokovic lost to Nadal on too many big occasions (Roland Garros semis, US Open final) to feel he made huge strides this year.
From the time Nadal returned in early February, world No. 1 Djokovic's mission was clear: Stop Nadal in his tracks. This Djokovic failed to accomplish, and in a very striking way. In fact, the way Djokovic snapped to life in the fall season, after Nadal had finally run him down and stripped away his No. 1 ranking, attests to how ineffectively he initially met the challenge of Nadal's return.
Was it hubris? Nerves? Lack of determination? Who knows? The bottom line is that as good a year as Djokovic had, he failed in job No. 1, which was to stop Nadal.
In light of that, there's really no candidate more worthy for ATP PoY runner-up honors than Andy Murray. Sure, Djokovic tagged him in the Australian Open final. It kept Murray suppressed, with just one Grand Slam title to his name despite his status as one of the Big Four ATP men. Murray was unable to compete in the French Open because of his back problems, but his subsequent win over Djokovic at Wimbledon was historic -- enough so to mitigate Murray’s loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals of the US Open.
Murray was unable to build on his success of the summer on the fall hard-court circuit because he pulled the plug on his season in order to have back surgery. We should all be as good as Murray was in 2013 with a back so compromised that it required surgery.
The resonance of Murray’s win at Wimbledon was indisputable, but he also benefited from the fact that nobody, but nobody, stepped up in a big way to make a case as a player of the year (not the difference with my WTA choice, below). That includes most of the men in the top 10, who were almost uniformly disappointing.
ATP No. 7 Wawrinka had a career year, but he won only one title -- that of the ATP 250 in Oeiras. Richard Gasquet, who hit No. 9, won three titles -- but they too were lowly 250s. The fact remains that getting the job done on the big stage of Masters or even ATP 500 events remains the towering mission for Gasquet as well as Wawrinka.
As for their fellow travelers in the top 10? David Ferrer, Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych et al remained excellent players in search of a career-validating win. So though Murray gets the nod for PoY runner-up, it seems almost as though it's by default.
WTA: It's a little easier to come up with a Player of the Year if you take Serena Williams out of consideration. Jelena Jankovic made a great comeback, all the way to No. 8 (after starting the year at No. 22). But then, she has been the year-end No. 1 (2008), so it isn't as if she's breaking new ground. We have to look elsewhere, but not that far.
Simona Halep set forth in 2013 with a ranking of No. 47 and finished the year at No. 11. Moreover, the 22-year-old Romanian won six titles this year -- the first six of her career. While short (at 5-foot-6), she’s powerful and fearless.
Halep's greatest shortcoming this year was her inability to improve substantially on a career-long flaw -- failure in Grand Slam events. Through Wimbledon of this year, Halep had been as far as the third round at a major only once -- and that was way back in January 2011.
Perhaps it was an omen that Halep made the fourth round of the last US Open, thanks to a good win over No. 14 seed Maria Kirilenko. Whatever the case, to break a career of famine with a six-title feast is more than enough to make Halep the shadow Player of the Year in the WTA.