Grand Slam breakthroughs, Davis Cup exploits, career-high rankings, dream Laver Cup debut – our four Most Improved Player of the Year nominees at the 2023 ATP Awards seemed to have done it all this season.
Matteo Arnaldi, Christopher Eubanks, Ben Shelton and Jannik Sinner showed an improved level of performance throughout the year and made significant jumps in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings:
|End of year ranking in 2022
Nominees for Most Improved Player of the Year are determined by voting by the International Tennis Writers Association (ITWA). The winner is selected by the players on the short list.
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Matteo Arnaldi, 22 years old
As if Italy wasn’t dominant enough with players like Jannik Sinner, Matteo Berrettini, Lorenzo Musetti, Lorenzo Sonego, etc., you can now add Matteo Arnaldi to that potent mix, an aggressive and physical backfield player from the Italian Riviera who in 2023 jumped from No. 134 to the Top 50 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
It was a busy year for the 22-year-old right-hander, who claimed 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 advanced to the round of 16 of the US Open, where he upset both Arthur Fils and Cameron Norrie. But the highlight of the year came in his Davis Cup debut in Malaga, Spain, where he dispatched Australian Alexei Popyrin and helped his countrymen win his first title in 47 years.
A tearful Arnaldi won over fans around the world when he dedicated the victory to his girlfriend’s late father, who had passed away just weeks earlier.
“It’s very emotional, especially because a month ago a very important person for me and my girlfriend passed away,” he told the crowd. “So this is for him and she doesn’t know what it means for me, also for my country.”
Matteo Arnaldi at the Plava Lagoon Croatia Open Umag. Credit: Getty Images
Christopher Eubanks, 27
The tennis world was surprised by the meteoric and late rise of Christopher Eubanks in 2023, a year that saw the American reach the Top 100 by reaching the quarterfinals at the Miami Open and claiming his first ATP Tour title in Mallorca. He then stunned Cameron Norrie and Stefanos Tsitsipas en route to his first major quarter-final on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon.
What made it even more notable was that the former ACC Player of the Year (Georgia Tech) accomplished it all while serving as a Tennis Channel commentator. He was as adept on the set as he was on the tennis court.
The talent has been there all along. It just took some self-confidence (and a pep talk from compatriot John Isner) for the American to achieve it all at 27 years old.
“He assured me, ‘You’re going to be fine, don’t worry about it.’ I think at that time I was ranked 180, 170, or something like that,” said Eubanks, who would later rise to his highest ranking (No. 29). “He really assured me that he was going to be okay. Practicing with him and hearing the feedback from him really gave me an extra push to know that everything was going to work.”
Christopher Eubanks in Wimbledon. Photo: Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour
Ben Shelton, 21
You couldn’t mark a better debut than the one Ben Shelton experienced in 2023. The current NCAA singles champion, son of former ATP Tour professional Bryan Shelton, burst onto the scene in Melbourne, showing his great left foot and his powerful serve to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Let’s forget the fact that, until then, Shelton had never traveled outside the United States.
She surpassed that result at the US Open, defeating compatriots Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe to earn a semi-final opportunity against then-23-time champion Novak Djokovic. By the end of the year, the former Florida Gator had helped lead Team World to its second consecutive Laver Cup title in Vancouver, captured his first ATP Tour title in Tokyo and jumped from 96th to a career-best 15th. , in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
Ironically, it might have been Shelton’s mid-year stagnation that benefited him the most (he failed to win consecutive matches during a difficult stretch between February and August, going 7-18 in circuit-level matches during this span). He was learning in real time, playing on new surfaces and new destinations, quietly becoming a better, more experienced player.
“I definitely learned a lot of things. The list could go on and on,” Shelton said. “Going to so many different countries, playing on different surfaces and being exposed to different things. I know it’s something where there will be a bit of a learning curve. I think for me it was a piece where I had to keep my perspective and know that, ‘Okay, I’m not supposed to go out here and win.'”
Ben Shelton in Tokyo. Foto: Koji Watanabe/Getty Images
Jannik Sinner, 22
Although he is only 22 years old, we have known for some time that Jannik Sinner’s ceiling is high.
After all, he reached the Top 10 as a teenager, and entering this year he had already reached the quarterfinals of all four majors and won six tour-level titles. But it was in 2023 when everything really came together for the powerful baseliner. Even, with a record of 64-14, he set an Open Era record for most wins by an Italian player in a single season.
That mark included a career-high eight wins against members of the Top-10, as well as his first major semi-final (Wimbledon), his first 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 ranking, tying legend Adriano Panatta as the highest-ranked Italian in the history of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
The Daren Cahill/Simone Vagnozzi-coached Sinner would save the best for last, leading Italy to their first Davis Cup title since 1976, with the deciding factor coming with a dominant 6-3, 6-0 victory over the Australian Alex de Minaur.
“This is something different, something really special, because you don’t play for yourself but for the whole team,” he said. “I think all of us were very excited to be a part of this.”
Jannik Sinner in Davis Cup. Photo: LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images