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Simona Halep vs. Sloane Stephens: Who improved the most this year?

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Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens

Simona Halep (left) won six titles, while Sloane Stephens did her damage at the Slams. (Koji Watanabe/Getty Images; Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Simona Halep won the WTA’s Most Improved Player Award, beating out Sloane Stephens, Kirsten Flipkens, Jamie Hampton, Jelena Jankovic, Carla Suarez Navarro and Alison Riske. Halep’s incredible season made this choice by the media seem like a no-brainer to me.

However, Matt Cronin of Tennis.com sparked some discussion when he tweeted that Stephens should have won.

So who should have won the WTA’s Most Improved Player award — Halep or Stephens?

Here’s how their seasons stack up:

Simona Halep
• Record: 53-17
• WTA titles: 6 (Nuremberg, ‘S-Hertogenbosch, Budapest, New Haven, Moscow, Tournament of Champions)
• Grand Slam performance: Australian Open — first round, lost to Sloane Stephens; French Open — first round, lost to Carla Suarez Navarro; Wimbledon — second round, lost to Li Na; U.S. Open — fourth round, lost to Flavia Pennetta
• Record vs. top 10: 4-5, with wins over Agnieszka Radwanska, Marion Bartoli, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova
• Rankings rise: No. 47 to No. 11
• Prize money: $1,222,446

The skinny: Based on the numbers tied to her improvement, Halep appears to be the convincing winner. The 22-year-old Romanian began the season ranked below Stephens yet finished one spot ahead of her, at a career-high No. 11. She also won six titles (on a variety of surfaces), second most behind Serena Williams’ 11, after entering the year with none. The former French Open junior champion, who started slowly this season amid injuries, ranked third on tour with 53 match victories (against 17 losses), or seven more than she had in her career (46-55) before the season.

Of course, the knock on Halep was her performance at the Slams. She lost to seeded players in the first round of the Australian (Stephens) and French Opens (Suarez Navarro) and won a single match at Wimbledon before falling to the sixth-ranked Li. When she finally got her ranking up to be seeded at the U.S. Open (by contrast, Stephens was seeded at all four majors), she blew a big opportunity after her section of the draw broke up, losing to the unseeded Pennetta.

Sloane Stephens
• Record: 39-23
• WTA titles: 0
• Grand Slam performance: Australian Open — semifinals, lost to Victoria Azarenka; French Open — fourth round, lost to Maria Sharapova; Wimbledon — quarterfinals, lost to Marion Bartoli; U.S. Open — fourth round, lost to Serena Williams
• Record vs. top 10: 2-9, with wins over Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova
• Rankings rise: No. 38 to No. 12
• Prize money: $1,498,608

The skinny: Halep may have had the more consistent year, but Stephens had the higher highs. You can’t ignore how well she fared at the Slams. The 20-year-old American was one of only three players to reach the fourth round or better at all four majors (Williams and Radwanska were the other two). She had only two wins over top-10 players, but they were big ones, ousting Williams at the Australian Open and Sharapova at the Western & Southern Open, in what would be Sharapova’s last match of the season.

The knock on Stephens, aside from her performance at tour events (she didn’t make a final this year and has yet to in her career), is that her success at the majors was due to relatively easy draws. She did not face a top-40 player until the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, a top-90 player until the fourth round of the French Open and — notwithstanding an exhausted Jamie Hampton — a top-60 player until the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. And then there are the claims that Stephens’ two big victories, against Williams and Sharapova, came against injured opponents.

My pick: Halep. This isn’t an award for “Best Season” or “Most Potential” or “Most Likely To Win a Slam.” The question here is who improved the most, and while Stephens is to be commended for taking advantage of her opportunities at the majors, Halep, with six titles, effectively went from being a non-factor to a real threat on tour.

What do you think? Vote in our poll and sound off in the comments.

  • Published On Nov 25, 2013
  • 7 comments
    ashok.korwar
    ashok.korwar

    The most improved player of the year is... Serena Williams.. only those who dont understand tennis need to count the rankings.. objectively, it is Serena who has upped her performance the most from last year..

    shaemcshae
    shaemcshae

    Speaking of No-Brainers, I didn't even have to check to see where this guy hailed from. In true style, the american backed the american.

    spystud
    spystud

    Halep, without question.  When Sloane wins something, anything, then we'll talk.  

    sinisteraadi
    sinisteraadi

    Halep had tough draw in the Slams as she was unseeded.
    1. Australian Open - Lost to Sloane Stephens in 1st round, she had injury problems till April
    2. French Open - Lost to Carla Suarez Navarro in 1st round, this she should've won considering she had a spectacular run in Rome and was evenly matched with CSN. Still, she lost in 3 sets
    3. Wimbledon - Lost to Li Na in 2nd round, Served a breadstick in the 2nd set, got bageled in the 3rd, No idea what happened there,
    4. US open - had a good run, She had set point on her serve against penneta to push the match into 3rd, but as soon as first few drops of rain hit the court, penneta ran towards her chair, packed her bags and was out within 30 seconds. When they returned, her momentum was lost and she was broken as she lost 3 straight points. "Pennetta dominated the tiebreaker against a disheartened Halep."

    Compared to Halep,Stephens had easy draw in all the Slams. No top30 opponent in AO till injured Serena, No top 90 opponent in Roland Garros till she lost to Sharapova in R16, no top 20 opponents in Wimbledon till she lost to Bartoli in QFs, same in USO till Serena.

    Simona against top 20  -  15 wins, 8 losses (6 in the earlier half of the season)
    Sloane against top 20 -  2 wins + 1 Walkover , 11 losses.
    Sloane has not been tested enough against quality opponents as could be surmised from above.

    As for Simona's titles,  only Serena, Vika, Kvitova had better titles then Simona amongst the top 10. Most of the single title holders at YEC  won the 270 events.

    This tweet further shows that Cronin is completely clueless about Halep and her achievements.
     

    Have to say though I'm bit stunned by anti-Sloane sentiment, as when talking Halep were not talking super popular player ie Serena or Maria— Matt Cronin (@TennisReporters) "https://twitter.com/TennisReporters/statuses/404314042438651905"

    He was expecting a pro-American reaction against a Romanian. Well, I guess he only watches Slams, rest of the season doesn't interest him. I wonder whether he had even heard of Halep before she was rightfully awarded.

    Halep's achievements have garnered her more fans than Sloane's mauling of injured and weak opponents.

    harrypotter1994
    harrypotter1994

    Love how you got your Jamie Hampton reference in again Courtney :) But regarding the topic def Simona 6 titles is massive

    mandela
    mandela

    I agree with you! 

    Halep knows how to win and Stephens is just learning how to win; this was evident in Wimbledon. Stephens also has a lot of trouble with pacing, focus or momentum during a game. However, Stephens is more likely to win a slam before Halep. I can't wait to see how they perform in '14.

    pyro21
    pyro21

    I definitely think Halep deserved the win. Sloane is a better player, but she didn't improve throughout the year the way Halep did.