ATP Tour and Grand Slam breakthroughs, career-high Pepperstone ATP Rankings, Davis Cup heroics, storybook Laver Cup debuts: Our four Most Improved Player of the Year nominees in the 2023 ATP Awards seemed to do it all this season.
Nominees for Most Improved Player of the Year are determined by an International Tennis Writers’ Association (ITWA) vote. The winner is selected by players from the shortlist.
#NextGenATP Stars Nominated For Newcomer Of The Year In 2023 Awards
Matteo Arnaldi, 22
As if Italy wasn’t already deep enough with the likes of Jannik Sinner, Matteo Berrettini, Lorenzo Musetti, Lorenzo Sonego, etc. You can now add Matteo Arnaldi to that potent mix, an aggressive, physical baseliner from the Italian Riviera who in 2023 leapt from No. 134 into the Top 50 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
It was a busy year for the 22-year-old right-hander, who collected a trio of ATP Challenger Tour titles in Tenerife, Murcia and Heilbronn, then battled through the qualifying rounds to reach the main draw in Dubai, Barcelona, Madrid, Wimbledon, Toronto and Beijing. After reaching his first tour-level semi-final in Umag, Arnaldi punched through to the Round of 16 at the US Open, where he stunned both Arthur Fils and Cameron Norrie. But the highlight of the year came in his Davis Cup debut in Malaga, Spain, where he dispatched Aussie Alexei Popyrin and helped lead his countrymen to their first title in 47 years.
A tearful Arnaldi won over tennis fans worldwide when he dedicated the victory to his girlfriend’s late father, who had passed away only weeks earlier.
“It’s very emotional, more because a very important person passed away a month ago for me and for my girlfriend,” he told the crowd. “So this is for him and she doesn’t know what it means to me — also for my country.”
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Matteo Arnaldi in Madrid. Credit: Getty Images
You weren’t alone if you got caught up in late-bloomer Christopher Eubanks’ feel-good run in 2023, which saw the American crack the Top 100 with a quarter-final showing in Miami, claim his first ATP Tour title in Mallorca, then stun Cameron Norrie and Stefanos Tsitsipas en route to his maiden major quarter-final on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon.
What made it even more remarkable was that the former ACC Player of the Year (Georgia Tech) pulled it all off while doubling as a Tennis Channel commentator, as adept on the set/behind the mic as he is on the tennis court.
The talent has been there all along. It just took some self-belief (and a pep talk from countryman John Isner) for the American to put it all together at 27.
“He reassured me, ‘You’re going to be fine, don’t worry about it.’ I think at that time I was ranked around 180, 170, something like that,” said Eubanks, who would later rise to a career-best No. 29 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. “He really reassured me I was going to be fine. Practising with him and hearing his input really gave me a little bit extra push to kind of know it’s going to work out.”
Ben Shelton, 21
You couldn’t dial up a better debut than the one Ben Shelton lived out in 2023. The reigning NCAA singles titlist, the son of former ATP Tour pro Bryan Shelton, burst onto the scene in Melbourne, flashing his big lefty, power-serving game in reaching the Australian Open quarter-finals. Forget the fact that, until then, Shelton had never travelled outside the United States.
He one-upped that result at the US Open, downing compatriots Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe to earn a semi-final shot at Novak Djokovic. By year’s end, the onetime Florida Gator had helped lead Team World to its second straight Laver Cup title in Vancouver, claimed his first ATP Tour title in Tokyo, and rocketed from No. 96 to a career-high No. 15 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
Ironically, it might have been Shelton’s mid-year stall that benefitted him most. (He failed to win back-to-back matches during a rocky February-to-August stretch, going 7-18 in tour-level matches.) He was learning in real time, playing on new surfaces in new destinations, quietly becoming a better, more experienced player.
“I definitely learned a lot of things. The list could go on and on,” said Shelton. “Going to so many different countries and playing on different surfaces, and just being exposed to different things. I know that it’s something where there’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve. I think that was a piece for me that I kind of had to keep my perspective and know that, ‘Okay, it’s not like I’m supposed to go out here and win every single match I play just because I did something good early in the season.’”
Jannik Sinner, 22
Though he’s just 22, we’ve long known Jannik Sinner’s ceiling is a high one.
He cracked the Top 10 as a teenager, after all, and coming into this year had already reached the quarter-finals of all four majors and won six tour-level titles. But it was in 2023 that it all really came together for the lanky, hard-hitting baseliner, who, by going 64-15, set an Open Era record for most wins by an Italian player in a single season.
That mark included a personal-best 13 Top 10 wins, his first major semi-final (Wimbledon), his maiden ATP Masters 1000 title (Toronto) and a run to the trophy match at the Nitto ATP Finals, where he traded wins with year-end No. 1 Novak Djokovic. He also reached a career-high No. 4, matching legend Adriano Panatta as the highest-ranked Italian in Pepperstone ATP Rankings history.
The Darren Cahill/Simone Vagnozzi-coached Sinner would save the best for last, leading Italy to its first Davis Cup title since 1976, the clincher coming in the form of a dominant 6-3, 6-0 dismissal of Australia’s Alex de Minaur.
“I think, especially the second half of the year, mentally I was much, much stronger,” said Sinner. “I was not complaining so much on court when things were going in the wrong way. I think these kind of things, they make difference sometimes…
“One of the things where I can be really happy is that I played many, many important matches in the biggest stadiums we have throughout the whole year. This is something [that] hopefully can help for the next season.”
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Jannik Sinner in Davis Cup action. Photo: LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images