2003 WTA Award Nominations
from Daily Tennis News: Nominations are official from WTA.
And the Winner Is...
As this is sent out, we're at the deadline for journalists to turn in their votes for the WTA Awards. We always get nervous about these awards, because so many tennis journalists cover the sport only intermittently, and don't know all about the various choices. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if even the nominees are rather on the absurd side.
This year is no exception. There isn't really any chance of us influencing anyone else, but this is always a fairly big deal to the winners (the losers no doubt have a different perspective on how messed up the system is), so we're going to talk about these awards, and the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, and who (in the author's opinion) should get the award.
The WTA of course sends out press releases describing each candidate's claims. But these always stress the positives without the negatives. So we'll try to present both sides.
Player of the Year
Awarded to the most dominant player during 2003, based on year-end ranking and tournament successes
For starters, we can cross off Venus. She won only one title, and it wasn't a Slam; it wasn't even a Tier I. They always nominate at least four players for these awards, so evidently they snuck in Venus for her name (and her two Slam finals). If it had been us, we'd have nominated either Amelie Mauresmo or Anastasia Myskina for the #4 spot on the ballot.
Clijsters is a better candidate; we are not among those who say the Player of the Year must have a Slam, if the circumstances are exceptional enough. Clijsters does have some extenuating circumstances on her side: She did win the year-end event, and led the Tour in titles won, and in Top Ten wins, and she was #1 for a lot of the summer and fall. But she wasn't the year-end #1 and she wasn't the most effective player. And she collapsed in Slams. It's one thing to lose. It's another to four times lose matches she should have won. Cross her off.
Serena can claim that she was the most effective player when she played. This is true enough. But there is a certain minimum level of results one must achieve. Serena, had she played more in the first half, might have made it -- but she might also have injured herself sooner. That leaves only one candidate: Justine Henin-Hardenne, who like Serena won two Slams, and who won a half dozen other titles, and who ended the year at #1.
Though the author has to admit to a severe temptation to vote for Clijsters, partly to shake things up but mostly to try to cause the nicest player to finish first.
Most Improved Player
Awarded to the player who has made the most significant improvement in wins and ranking
Once again we can do one very quick elimination: Vento-Kabchi. Yes, she vastly improved from 2002 to 2003 -- she was playing Challengers at the start of last year. But this is a player who was #31 in 1998; she never reached that level in 2003. How can you improve to below your best?
Henin-Hardenne did improve; there is no question but that she was mentally tougher in 2003 than in 2002. But she was already #5 at the end of 2002. It seems a little unfair to give a player an award for going from the Top Five to -- the Top Five.
Dementieva is a strange case, in that she finally won her first (and second, and third) title in 2003. But that still carried her only to #8 in the world, and she'd been there before. Again, the improvement just isn't there.
Petrova went from outside the Top 100 to the Top Fifteen, which on paper seems like a huge move. Except that Petrova's ranking was really the result of injury. She made some progress from where she was after Gold Coast 2002 -- but not that much. She's a Comeback candidate, not a Most Improved candidate.
That leaves (from this list, anyway; we could nominate some others) Sugiyama and Zvonareva. In terms of rankings, each has a good claim: Both hit career highs; Sugiyama went from #24 at the start of the year to #10, and also won the first two Tier II titles of her career; Zvonareva went from #45 to #13 and picked up a title of her own.
Zvonareva, though, just doesn't seem like a candidate somehow. Her only title was Bol, a Tier III. She had only two Top Ten wins -- over an all-messed-up Myskina at Berlin and over an injured Venus at Roland Garros. She turned into a good, steady, consistent player -- but she doesn't feel like she made that much progress. That's a gut feeling, but at some point you have to go with your feelings.
Doubles Team of the Year
Awarded to the most dominant double team of 2003, based on year-end ranking and tournament successes
Kim Clijsters/ Ai Sugiyama
Svetlana Kuznetsova / Martina Navratilova
Serena Williams / Venus Williams
Virginia Ruano Pascual / Paola Suarez
Once again we get to eliminate one team right from the get-go: The Williams Sisters, with only one title (in two tries) shouldn't have been nominated. They may be the "best" team out there (though their winning percentage is below Clijsters/Sugiyama), but again, you have to play to win an award, and they didn't play.
The team of Navratilova/Kuznetsova was the year's best story, and it's too bad there is no award for that. But they simply weren't in the same league as Clijsters/Sugiyama or Ruano Pascual/Suarez.
On the numbers, the latter two teams seem about equal: Clijsters/Sugiyama won two Slams, and Ruano Pascual/Suarez only one -- but the latter pair made all four Slam finals, won the year-end Championships, and ended #1 and #2.
Except -- Ruano Pascual and Suarez won only five titles, in seventeen events; that's only 29.4% of tournaments won. They went 50-12, for a winning percentage of 80.6%. That 80.6% trails not only Clijsters/Sugiyama but even Davenport/Raymond (who didn't get nominated but probably should have had the Williams/Williams spot). Clijsters and Sugiyama, by contrast, went 46-5, 90%, and won seven of 13 tournaments -- 53.8% of tournaments played. And had it not been for the U. S. Open organizers forcing Clijsters out of the doubles there with their scheduling decisions, they might well have ended up with three Slams, and Sugiyama would surely have ended up as the year-end #1. That's not the fault of Ruano Pascual and Suarez, of course -- but clearly Clijsters/Sugiyama were the best out there.
Comeback Player of the Year
Awarded to the player who has made the most significant comeback to the Tour from injury or illness during 2003
This is getting monotonous. Who picks these people? As with every other contest, we can quickly cross off one: Mauresmo didn't come back from anything. She missed a lot of time, sure, but it seems that she's just a player who does miss a lot of time. Mauresmo in fact was injured more in 2003 than 2002; how is that a comeback? (And, for that matter, she's injured again now.)
Similarly, Molik doesn't meet the criteria. She was a candidate for Most Improved in 2003, but not for Comeback Player; she played two dozen events in 2002! Her real injuries came in 2003 -- and while she did come back, her results fell off as the year progressed. If by "comeback player" you simply mean someone who is back from a slump, then perhaps she fits -- but she had really had only one good year prior to 2003, and had spent many years around her 2002 level. "Oscillator of the year" fits better than "Comeback Player."
That leaves Petrova and Krasnoroutskaya. Their stories are almost absurdly similar: Reached the top forty, then were hurt in the first month of 2002 (Petrova at Gold Coast, Krasnoroutskaya at the start of the Australian Open). Came back late in the year, struggled, fell way down the rankings at the start of 2003, then rebuilt.
The only real grounds for choosing between them are their final rankings. Petrova ended up in the Top 15, while Krasnoroutskaya was below #25. So we'd give the nod to Petrova.
Most Impressive Newcomer
Awarded to the most impressive jump into the top 100 in 2003, based on year-end ranking and tournament successes
If you were hoping we'd have an award where all the candidates are legitimate -- naah. We can cross off two candidates without even really examining their credentials. Harkleroad has been bouncing around the fringes of the Tour for three years; Bartoli played her first WTA match in 2001, and was a regular in the Slams in 2002. They just aren't new enough in our book.
Sharapova and Sprem are much better possibilities. Sharapova played her first WTA match at Indian Wells 2002, and had only two main draws prior to the beginning of 2003; Sprem had only one prior to Bol this year. Sprem certainly made a splash on her arrival, reaching the final of her third WTA event at Strasbourg, and then the final of her fourth at Vienna; she also won a bunch of low-level Challengers early in 2003. A key word, though, is low-level; she won only one high-level ($50K or better) Challenger: Poitiers, in November. And she lost those two finals.
Sharapova had no such problems, winning two titles (plus a Challenger of her own), reaching a Slam Round of Sixteen, and ending the year at #32 (Sprem was #59).
Conclusion: Sprem may well be a force -- perhaps even a bigger force than Sharapova -- someday. But Sharapova was a force already in 2003. So she gets our vote for this year. Sprem -- well, we'd consider her new enough that she could have another shot at the award next year.
Incidentally, you may recall that we handed out our own versions of these awards earlier this year. Our results then (and how they compare to the WTA list):
Player of the Year: Henin-Hardenne (nominated by WTA)
Doubles Team of the Year: Clijsters/Sugiyama (nominated by WTA)
Most Improved Player: Alicia Molik (not nominated by the WTA, though she was nominated for Comeback Player)
Most Impressive Newcomer: Sharapova (nominated by the WTA)
Comeback Player: Petrova, with an honorable mention to Krasnoroutskaya (both nominated by the WTA)