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Mailbag: Handing Out the 2021 Year-End ATP Awards

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 12/8/2021 Jon Wertheim

Handing out the hardware for the 2021 ATP season for MVP, newcomer, comeback player, match of the year and more.

Hey, everyone…last week we handed out awards for the WTA. This week, the ATP Awards.

Danielle Parhizkaran/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Danielle Parhizkaran/USA TODAY Sports

MVP: Novak Djokovic

• Credit the ATP with not even holding a free election here. (Why, it’s almost like China!) Not even worth discussing. Novak Djokovic started the year at No. 1, ended at No. 1, came a match from winning the Grand Slam—all four majors, of course—and while he moved into a tie for all-time majors when he won his 20th, this was the year that, even someone with Djokovician flexibility had a hard time contorting themselves to argue against his GOAT status.

Most Improved Player of the Year

Carlos Alcaraz

Cameron Norrie

Aslan KaratsevCasper Ruud

• We often debate this. Does “Most Improved” mean a young player who makes a splash? Or a mid-career player who upgrades? We say the latter. Carlos Alcaraz can hardly improve—he was barely old enough to drive a car a year ago. To a lesser extent, Ruud has been on an upward trajectory for his entire young career. Cam Norrie? Improved, for sure. But the award could be retired by Karatsev, who started the year outside the top 100, a 27-year-old barely hanging on. After qualifying for the Australian Open, he reached week two and didn’t stop. He won a title. He beat Novak Djokovic (in Belgrade). He won a doubles title to boot. He finished the year ranked No. 18. Improved? Hell, retire the award on his honor.

Newcomer of the Year

Brandon NakashimaSebastian BaezJenson BrooksbyHugo GastonJuan Manuel Cerundolo

• First things first, note: Carlos Alcaraz, won a year ago—and is therefore not technically eligible. All credit to the nominees, not least Brooksby, the second-half Karatsev who went from an overlooked American to a future star in a matter of months. But we’ll challenge the premise you can’t win twice. Alcaraz announced himself as the realest of deals. He started the year at No. 146 and had to qualify for the Australian Open. He finished at No. 32, beating the likes of Rudd, Tsitsipas (at the U.S. Open), Sinner and Andy Murray as he climbed. It was fitting he capped this breakthrough year by winning the Next Gen. In what cockamamie world is this not a breakthrough?

Coach of the Year

Craig Boynton (Hubert Hurkacz)Gilles Cervara (Daniil Medvedev)Juan Carlos Ferrero (Carlos Alcaraz)Facundo Lugones (Cameron Norrie)Christian Ruud (Casper Ruud)

• Congrats to all of the above. But unless there’s a mid-season firing or some unusual set of circumstances, it seems awfully disrespectful not to confer a Coach of the Year Award on the aide-de-camp of the No. 1 player. Like the WTA, the ATP is attempting to make coaches more prominent. That’s fine. But credit where it’s due. Marian Vajda and Goran Ivanisevic split duties with Djokovic. And the results speak for themselves.

Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award of the Year

Francis TiafoeRafael NadalFelix Auger-AliassimeCasper Ruud

• A totally subjective award, that’s been hijacked by Federer/Nadal in years past. (I’ve seen the complaints lodged by the Djokovic Loyalists but cannot agree. You cannot confer a sportsmanship award on someone who’s a vaccine-skeptic and who tosses his racket into the Olympics stands—the year after he is defaulted from a major for pelting an official with a ball. You just can’t. In a sane world, where passions aren’t amplified by social media, this isn’t even a discussion.)

The four nominees put forth are all solid and worthy. I’m inclined to go with Tiafoe. Yes, he is a fair and fun and well-liked colleague. He also is happy and willing to interact with crowds. He feeds off their energy. They sense this and return the favor. Everyone wins.

Doubles Team of the Year

• Almost a Djokovic-level no-brainer. Croatian sensations Mate Pavic and Nikola Mektic are simply the best in the business.

Comeback Player of the Year

Andy MurrayMackenzie McDonaldJack SockThanasi Kokkinakis

• As it is written: when you’re in your mid-30s and win matches with a piece of metal implanted in your hip, it’s game over. Andy Murray.

Some write-ins:

Match of the Year

• Novak Djokovic d. Sasha Zverev, U.S. Open semifinal 4-6, 6-2. 6-4. 4-6, 6-2. A 214-minute demonstration of why Djokovic is so damn good.

Disappointment of the Year

• There will be votes for Nick Kyrgios, now ranked No. 93, another year squandered. But: the real source of disenchantment: the ATP’s soft stance on China. The players, overall, support the WTA and the concern for Peng Shuai. The ATP though, is a player/event partnership, and when the tournament portion of the board‑which includes a Shanghai tournament director, you end up with punchless statements in the face of authoritarianism.

Non-playing MVP

• Greg Sharko does an immense service to tennis, both in obvious and subtle ways. One hope his superiors realize as much.

Non-playing Newcomer of the Year

• The San Diego event. This will be a theme in 2022: how easily events can come and go.

Stories to Watch in 2022

• The GOAT race, the kid race (Medvedev, Zverev, Thiem). What will the ATP Strategic Plan mean for non-Masters Series events? How many team cups will remain? Who of the Big Three will be active this time next year?

More Tennis Coverage

Billie Jean King Wins Sports Illustrated's 2021 Muhammad Ali Legacy Award• It's Time for the WTA to Stop Doing Business in China• Mailbag: Tennis Community Has Been Steadfast in Response to Peng Shuai Case

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