The WTA have announced their four candidates for 2015 Rising Star of the Year award which will be decided through a public vote available on their website. Formerly called the Newcomer of the Year Award and decided through press votes, the re-naming of the award and opening votes to the fans show a new direction in how the WTA want increased fan engagement in deciding their year-end awards. The four nominees the WTA have put forth are Russian-Australia Daria Gavrilova, Russian Margarita Gasapryan, Russian Daria Kasatkina, and Japan's Nao Hibino.
Daria Gavrilova: Fulfilling her junior promise
The highest ranked of the four nominees at world number 36 is 21-year-old Gavrilova, a junior tennis phenom whose career was delayed by a knee injury sustained in 2013 and caused her to miss most of 2014. Gavrilova's junior success saw her reach number one in the world in 2010, with titles at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and the US Open Junior Championships. Gavrilova spent time training in France at the Patrick Mouratoglou Academy before moving to Australia where she is in the process of gaining citizenship. Gavrilova is currently able to play grand slam tournaments under the Australian flag, but must represent Russia at WTA tour events.
Forced to work herself back up through the rankings due to her knee injury, Gavrilova won two Australian challenger titles in Febuary before enjoying WTA tour success in the Spring American hard court season. At the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, she lost a three-set match to Simona Halep after coming through qualifying, which was prelude to her success at the following tournament in Miami Open. In the second round, Gavrilova earned the best victory of her career defeating Maria Sharapova in the second round , winning 7-6(4), 6-3, before ultimately losing in the fourth round. Playing with fire, Gavrilova continued her great run through the spring where she reached the semifinal of Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome with victories over Belinda Bencic, Ana Ivanovic and Timea Bacsinszky. Although the second half of the year saw up-and-down results from Gavrilova, partially due to injuries, she has proven to be a player capable of taking on the very best of sport.
Margarita Gasparyan: One-handed backhand dazzled many
Photo Credit: Kremlin Cup
The second nominated player is 21-year-old player Margarita Gasparyan, one of the rare young players on tour who uses a one-handed backhand. Gasparyan has shown hints of great talent over the last few years, primarily in Russian ITF tournaments, but in 2015, she was able to finally breakthrough to reach the main tour, ending the season at number 58 in the world. Showing her best form on fast surfaces, Gasparyan claimed three ITF circuit titles on indoor courts in the first few months of the year. It was at the Grand Slams over the summer that Gasparyan started to catch the attention, qualifying into the main draw of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. It was at Wimbledon that Gasparyan faced Serena Williams and pushed the number the world's number one player to a tight opening set, displaying great ground strokes and impressing the many who watched. She was able to carry forward this positive momentum and won her first WTA title at the Baku Cup where she defeated Dominika Cibulkova in the opening round. Further success followed for Gasparyan, reaching the quarterfinal of the indoor tournaments at the Generali Ladies Linz Open and Kremlin Cup in Moscow. With her power and unique backhand, Gasparyan should become a mainstay on tour in the years to come and will continue to rise in the rankings next year.
Daria Kasatkina: Fast summer rise for eighteen year-old
Photo Credit: Kremlin Cup
By far the youngest of the four Rising Star nominees is 18-year-old Kasatkina, who has transitioned exceptionally well from the junior circuit to the pro tour. As one of the world's top junior stars, Kasatkina reached the Roland Garros junior final in 2013, before ultimately winning the crown in 2014. Much of Kasatkina's early success came on clay, which her heavy forehand which requires a large swing is well suited for. Kasatkina showed this year that she is not just a clay-court specialist, having a breakthrough run at the US Open and reaching the semifinal of the premier level Kremlin Cup. Kasatkina's rise this year is also the most impressive based on number of ranking points gained as she ended 2014 at 370 in the world, improving all the way to her current position of 74. She spent the first nine months of the year on the clay courts first having success in ITF before making her WTA breakthrough at Bad Gastein where she came through qualifying to reach the quarterfinals with a notable victory over Julia Goerges. Her season ending run on the hardcourts of Moscow was her most impressive result, netting a top-ten victory over Carla Suarez Navarro before a tight three-set loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the semis. With her heavy forehand and calm on-court demeanor, Kasatkina will be a player everyone will be watching closely in 2016 to see just how far she can climb in the WTA rankings.
Nao Hibino: Surprise performer consistantly improving
Photo Credit: Tashkent Open
Of the four players nominated for the award, the biggest surprise is the twenty-year-old Japanese player who started the year virtually unknown. Hibino was a late comer to the sport only picking up a racquet at the age of ten when her parents, concerned by her older brother's lack of physical activity, wanted to find a sport the family got involved with. Ending 2014 just outside the top 200, Hibino appeared a solid player competing predominately in Japan with little to indicate she would be heading well inside the top 100.
Her breakthrough came in May when she won her first $50,000 ITF level tournament in Kurume, Japan. Deciding she wanted to prove herself outside her home country, she went to America where she had an exceptional run winning two USTA Pro Circuit $50,000 challengers in Stockton, California and Louisville, Kentucky. Her real shining moment came at the WTA Tashkent Open where in only her second WTA main draw appearance, she was able to walk away with the title defeating tough opponents Bojana Jovanovski in the semifinals and Donna Vekic in the final. A consistant performer with great movement and a killer backhand Hibino is now ranked 73 in the world with a record of 45-19 for the year. Hibino's ascent along with the success of Misaki Doi and eighteen year-old Naomi Osaka indicates a great year for Japanese women could be on the cards in 2016.