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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 9 March 2021

Naomi Osaka's fight for social justice to Garbine Muguruza daredevil exploits: the WTA Alternative Awards ceremony

Ahead of the official women's tour awards, we pick out some offbeat winners in a covid-19 disrupted season

Japan's Naomi Osaka wore masks highlighting social justice issues in America throughout this year's US Open. AFP
Japan's Naomi Osaka wore masks highlighting social justice issues in America throughout this year's US Open. AFP

The tennis off-season is upon us and the tours will be dishing out their annual awards soon, highlighting the best performers of 2020.

Here’s a different look at the standouts from this coronavirus-disrupted year, as we hand out some Alternative Awards to the protagonists of the WTA.

Press Conference Wisdom award

Victoria Azarenka

The Belarusian former world No 1 didn’t just impress on the tennis court in 2020, she was equally prolific in the press conference room – the virtual press conference room that is.

Azarenka, whose last five events of the season included a title run at the Western & Southern Open and final appearances at the US Open and Ostrava, has been on a journey of personal transformation that saw her bounce back from near-retirement early this year to end 2020 ranked 13 in the world.

The 31-year-old took the time during her chats with the media this season to open up about her previous struggles and how she managed to recapture the feeling of joy on court. The way she’s been able to clearly articulate the lessons learned from her personal experiences, and the perspective she has gained from it all was truly inspiring.

“It took me a long road to come here with a lot of struggles, a lot of understanding, forcing me to find this route, this path, if you can say that. But I'm here and I'm happy,” she told reporters ahead of her semi-final win over Serena Williams at the US Open.

“I can definitely say this is the most exciting part for me. Being in the semi-final of a grand slam is a blessing for sure, it's an amazing opportunity. But the way I feel about myself, about my tennis, about my life, is the biggest win for me right now.”

Often times during her press conferences, journalists tried to force a certain narrative on Azarenka, especially when it came to her being a successful mother on tour. But instead of just playing along, she calmly reminded everyone that while nothing is more important in the world to her than her son, when she is on a tennis court, she is a competitor and an athlete.

It’s been a real treat listening to the two-time major champion in 2020. And just as she surely has got the WTA Comeback Player of the Year award in the bag, she deservedly scoops our Press Conference Wisdom award.

Activism award

Naomi Osaka

The Japanese-Haitian star took a vow this year to become more outspoken and she stayed true to her word, joining the fight for social justice in America – her country of residence – by attending protests in Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd, refusing to take to the court for her Western & Southern Open final (she single-handedly got the tours to suspend play for a day), and wearing masks emblazoned with the names of victims of police brutality to each of her matches at the US Open.

The three-time major champion has become a leading voice on the tour, which is home to many players that care about making a real impact. From Coco Gauff’s continuous efforts in spreading awareness on issues of racial inequality, to Sloane Stephens’ great work through her foundation, this generation of WTA stars will leave a lasting legacy well beyond the tennis court.

Whatever It Takes award

Jennifer Brady

The 25-year-old American is in the running for the tour’s Most Improved Player of the Year award but it’s what she is doing in order to make that progress that is actually worth our attention.

The pride of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Brady hired German coach Michael Geserer during the Asian swing at the end of last year and she spent her off-season in Regensberg in south-east Germany preparing for 2020.

Because of the pandemic and the global travel restrictions, Brady took the decision to stay in Europe after wrapping up her 2020 season in Ostrava, despite being on the road since July. It takes some hardcore commitment to opt out of going home after a difficult few months of back-to-back competition in tricky bubble conditions and Brady is clearly all about commitment.

With the Australian Open likely to be postponed until February, Brady is looking at a possible eight-month stretch of not going home for the sake of her tennis.

The good news is that the hard work is paying off as she ended 2020 ranked inside the top 25 for the first time in her career.

Shiny Spirit award

Maria Sakkari

The Greek world No 22 has an infectious fighting spirit on court and a luminous engaging one off it. You can always depend on Sakkari to give a detailed and honest press conference, whether it’s after a win or a loss, and she does her best to find positivity, even in the toughest scenarios.

During her last event of 2020, Sakkari was asked about the struggles players face by constantly living in a restrictive bubble because of the pandemic.

She spoke about the fear of testing positive for the virus and how travel has become way more difficult before adding: “There are also positive things. The fact we have to stay in a certain place, personally, it makes me more relaxed.

"I don’t have the stress of, let’s go out eat, let’s go there, let’s do that … it’s kind of like an easy life, quite relaxed, I don’t mind it. I just want to say it’s not only a negative thing. I think the tournaments have done a great job.”

Leave it to Sakkari to always succeed in finding a silver lining…

Quarantine Queen award

Venus Williams

Is there anyone who rocked the tour’s five-month hiatus better than Venus Williams? The American legend became ‘Coach Venus’ during lockdown and set up a weekly schedule of virtual workouts with fellow players and other celebrities on Instagram Live.

Her guests included the likes of Naomi Campbell, Grigor Dimitrov, Naomi Osaka, Rob Gronkowski and her sister Serena. From ‘Tennis Tuesdays’ to ‘Flex Fridays’, Williams mixed her workouts with fun chats, all while cleverly cross-promoting her activewear brand EleVen.

Daredevil award

Garbine Muguruza

This time last year, the Spanish ex-world No 1 climbed Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, during the off-season before kicking off 2020 with a bang with a runner-up showing at the Australian Open.

Last month, the two-time grand slam champion returned to her adventurous ways by training with Spain’s Civil Guard. She took part in helicopter rescue exercises with the GREIM, went cave diving with the GEAS and took self-defence classes.

A tennis match will no doubt feel like a piece of cake when the new season comes around.

Hit-maker award

Carol Zhao

There’s been plenty of musical talent emerging on both tours this season, especially because players had more time on their hands during lockdown. Dayana Yastremska released a catchy bop called “Favorite Track”, Karolina Muchova – a personal favourite – has been sharing captivating clips on her Instagram all year, and Canadian Carol Zhao released a beautiful duet with Jake Beck called “I Wish It Would Never Stop Raining”.

Stanford grad Zhao, a former standout junior who has been hampered by an elbow injury, first caught our eye when she wrote a song about tennis back in 2017, called “Concrete”. She has racked up more than 6,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and her latest duet is a lovely listen.

Published: December 8, 2020 03:24 PM

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