Storytelling, speeches, hugs: the WTA Alternative Awards for 2021

We pick out some offbeat winners in another Covid disrupted season

Ons Jabeur, left, of Tunisia has become on of the most endearing players on the WTA Tour. AFP
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It’s that time of the year again where we hand out some alternative awards to the women who highlighted a stellar season on the WTA tour.

The reflective storyteller award

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia in action in October 2021. EPA

One of my favourite things these past five months has been listening to 30-year-old Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova discuss her long route to reaching a first grand slam final.

A tennis prodigy from her teen years who was ranked No 1 in juniors, Pavlyuchenkova was halted in the quarter-final stage of a major on six different occasions, unable to cross that last-eight barrier.

This season though, 16 years after turning pro, and a decade after making her first major quarter-final, Pavlyuchenkova finally broke through by making the final at Roland Garros, and has now risen to a career-high No 11 in the world.

Her brutal honesty when discussing her struggles dealing with her early success, navigating depression, losing motivation during the pandemic and how she battled through it all has been both refreshing and inspiring.

“I'm used to being the youngest one always on tour. Everything was ahead of me,” Pavlyuchenkova said in Madrid last May.

“I was, just, I was there. I was winning matches quite consistently. Okay, maybe I wasn't top 10, but still kind of felt like, ‘Okay, I got this’. Then all of a sudden at some point I just came to the point where I thought, ‘Maybe I don't belong there anymore. Like, maybe it's time to go’.

“At some point I felt a little bit lost. I wasn't sure, am I capable of beating those top-20 players again or top-10 players? Then you just start to doubt yourself. You doubt the work you're doing.”

Luckily she didn’t let the doubts completely take over.

Pavlyuchenkova has been dropping pearls of wisdom all year – in three different languages – and her recent interview with the brilliant Sofya Tartakova is not to be missed.

It’s not always easy to share your narrative with the rest of the world but Pavlyuchenkova has been eloquently doing it all season. There’s a lot we can all learn from her experiences.

Poignant victory speech award

Barbora Krejcikova

Czech Republic's Barbora Krejcikova celebrates. Reuters

Whether she was giving a moving tribute to her late coach Jana Novotna after winning the French Open, or giving us all a history lesson about the Velvet Revolution that ended 41 years of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia, Barbora Krejcikova found a way to bring the house down every time she was handed a microphone on court.

“We call this day the Velvet Revolution. On 17 November 1989, we had very brave Czechoslovakia students and citizens; they went outside to the streets and they had been demonstrating against the non-democratic regime we had back then,” Krejcikova told the crowd after being crowned WTA Finals doubles champion alongside her fellow Czech Katerina Siniakova in Guadalajara earlier this month.

“Thanks to them and their sacrifice, today my generation can live in a beautiful country back home. We can live without any restrictions and also with the freedom.”

Czech-American legend Martina Navratilova was in tears on court as she listened to Krejcikova, who continued: “Just for example, so everybody understands what was happening back then, we have here Martina Navratilova who was forced to emigrate from Czechoslovakia because of the regime that was there. I’m really happy that regime is not there anymore and we can live in freedom.”

It’s remarkable to have the poise and composure to find the right words to say in a victory speech when most people would be overwhelmed and overcome by emotion.

When she lifted her maiden singles grand slam title in Paris, Krejcikova said some lovely words about her former coach Novotna, who died of cancer in 2017.

“I was going through a really hard time when Jana was passing away,” Krejcikova told the fans at Court Philippe-Chatrier. “Pretty much her last words were just enjoy and just try to win a grand slam. I know that from somewhere she's looking after me and all of this is pretty much because she's looking after me from up there.”

Poignant runner-up speech award

Leylah Fernandez

Leylah Fernandez of Canada. Getty

If victory speeches are difficult to pull off because of all the emotions, runner-up speeches are possibly even harder since the last thing anyone wants to do after a loss is to stand in front of thousands of people and share their thoughts.

Canadian teen Leylah Fernandez made it look easy though when she spoke to the Arthur Ashe stadium crowd after losing the US Open final to Emma Raducanu on September 11.

“I know on this day it was especially hard for New York and everyone around the United States. I just want to say that I hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the past 20 years,” said Fernandez.

Post-match hug award

Ons Jabeur

Ons Jabeur of Tunisia returns the ball against Maria Camila Osorio Serrano of Colombia. AFP

There have been many heartwarming moments on tour this year – Maria Sakkari pulling in a tearful Iga Swiatek for a hug at the net during the WTA Finals being a most recent example.

Post-match handshakes can sometimes get awkward (look for the hashtag ‘#imjusthereforthehandshake’ on Twitter, you won’t regret it) but one player who almost always goes for the hug is the tour’s most sociable star, Ons Jabeur.

The Tunisian shared the sweetest moment with Colombian teen Camila Osorio when she beat her 6-0, 6-1 at the US Open two months ago.

At the net, Jabeur gave the 19-year-old a bear hug along with some encouraging words to console her.

“She is a great human being,” Osorio told Colombian press after the match. “Outside the court she greets me and my family. She knew I wanted to do well, but things didn't work out for me. She told me to relax, that everything was fine. It was very nice.”

Mental health initiatives award

Venus Williams and Iga Swiatek

Venus Williams attends King Richard in Los Angeles. Reuters

Mental health has been at the forefront of many discussions in sport this year and it was great to see the legendary Venus Williams collaborate with the WTA and BetterHelp to launch a programme that will provide $2 million of free therapy to the public.

Iga Swiatek also did her part this season by announcing a $50,000 donation to two Polish foundations working in the field of mental health.

The 20-year-old Swiatek made the decision on World Mental Health Day and chose those two foundations based on suggestions from her followers online.

“The foundations will use this money to hire new psychotherapists to work with children and teenagers who struggle with depression, anxiety, violence and suicidal thoughts,” explained Swiatek. “Never in those foundations' history has the demand for therapy been so high as it is now, mainly because of the pandemic.”

Shiny spirit award

Camila Osorio

Colombia's Camila Osorio. AP

It is incredibly hard to catch Osorio without a smile on her face. The bubbly Colombian enjoyed a breakthrough 2021, where she picked up a maiden WTA title – on home soil no less – and rose from 186 at the start of the year to a career-high 53 in the world rankings.

There were many hilarious moments with Osorio – or Cami as she is commonly known as – this season, but perhaps my favourite was when I asked her about how she’s adapting her game to grass during her Wimbledon qualifying campaign.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing, I’m just playing,” she said bursting into laughter. The self-deprecating Osorio didn’t just qualify for Wimbledon; she ended up making the third round in the main draw.

Comedy gold award

Daria Gavrilova

Daria Gavrilova has had a difficult year. She was unable to compete between February and November as she underwent Haglund’s deformity surgery and dealt with Achilles tendon enthesopathy.

The Moscow-born Aussie was stuck in Melbourne for months on end, rehabbing mostly by herself, surviving a strict statewide lockdown and unable to see her fiancé Luke Saville, who was travelling the tour and competing.


Ahh used to happen all the times in juniors... tbh still happens now too 🥲 #tennis #🎾 #dariagavrilova #tennisplayer t

♬ Leave Get Out x JoJo x DB99 - Samoan Prince 🇼🇸🇼🇸🇼🇸

During such tough times, Gavrilova provided an endless stream of comedic content on TikTok and her other social media channels, ranging from short skits where she mockingly embodied various player stereotypes, to videos of her equally famous dog, Tofu, to clips of her dancing alone in the gym.

The humour and creativity in her videos is unrivalled, and it was nice to see someone make the best out of a bad situation while she was sidelined from competition.

Making a difference award

Sloane Stephens

US star Sloane Stephens. AP

The more you read up on the work Sloane Stephens does through her foundation to help young kids through “providing educational opportunities and encouraging healthy lifestyles”, the more your admiration grows for her.

From her Love, Love Compton programme, to the Doc & Glo scholarship she created in honour of her late grandparents, to her role on the WTA Player Council, Stephens is someone who likes to get involved and be proactive about affecting change.

Stephens, who joined the Council in 2019, was recently re-elected for a second term.

“I think it’s been an interesting process,” the former US Open champion told reporters at the Billie Jean King Cup earlier this month.

“We’ve made a lot of good strides on behalf of the players. When you get into it, you kind of have unfinished business; we’ve started a lot of good projects and a lot of good things for our girls and the tour and we haven’t fully finished what we needed to finish.

“I came in with Madison [Keys] and we had some goals to really accomplish and I think we’re still in the process of that, so I don’t want to get off until we’ve really made some good strides. That’s why I do it.”

Stephens recently started a blog called ‘Sloane Stephens Off-Court’, where she shares some of her unfiltered feelings and views from her day-to-day life.

“I want to do my part to encourage women to embrace life to its fullest by connecting with one another, caring for all aspects of their well-being, discovering and utilising resources that meet needs/address gaps, and prioritising joy through self-discovery, dream chasing, and living,” writes Stephens.

“By sharing some of myself and my interests, I hope to help build a community where people can learn more about experiencing overall wellness and joy. Because I truly envision a world where Black women and other women of colour are healthy, thriving and free with equitable access to the tools and resources they need to live their happiest and most fulfilling lives.”

Updated: November 26, 2021, 8:32 AM