Australian Open 2021: Djokovic and Williams go for records, but a new generation threatens
Top-seed Barty looks for home glory; Thiem seeks second Major; Evans draws Norrie in Round 1
These have been unprecedented times, with the coronavirus pandemic still having a firm grip on the throat of almost the entire globe.
One of the bright beacons has been Australia, where early, hard lockdowns earned a release for its entire population. All the more significant, then, that this vast country has ploughed ahead with one of its greatest sporting events.
Could it safely manage the influx of thousands of people from around the world?
Could tennis’s finely tuned athletes limit their entourages, and succumb to stringent quarantine in order to have the chance to compete?
And could the state of Victoria really host six tournaments in between that quarantine and the start of the Open?
Well give or take some extra confinement, a 24-hour hiatus for more checks after a security officer tested positive, and even unseasonably cool and wet weather, the answer has been yes.
There are a few absences, most notably the six-time champion Roger Federer for the first time in 22 years. He has not played since this time last year, had double knee surgery last summer, and must also have thought twice about leaving his wife and four children behind for five or six weeks.
Andy Murray, a five-time finalist, had a positive test just before his trip to Australia, and was unable to meet the schedule necessary: of course he too has a growing family.
But the formidable presence of seven-time champion Serena Williams and eight-time champion Novak Djokovic has not been affected. Both were among the handful of stars who headed first to Adelaide, got some exho matches under their belts, and then joined their colleagues in Melbourne, where they threw their weight into the ATP Cup and Yarra Valley Classic respectively.
Djokovic and Williams target records
Both players had to do double duty on Friday, both eventually bowed out—but that perhaps was the ideal scenario three days ahead of their record-targeting campaigns Down Under.
Djokovic is favourite to extend his Australian tally to nine, and thus close on the record 20 apiece Majors held by Federer and Rafael Nadal. Another of his career targets, the most weeks at No1, is now within his grasp, for he cannot be overtaken at the top before 1 March, when he will match the Swiss star’s 310 weeks.
Williams last won a Major four years ago, while pregnant with her daughter, at this very tournament. She has gone on to reach four Major finals but has not yet managed to equal the all-time record of Margaret Court’s 24. And time is not on her side as she heads towards her 40th birthday in September. After all, seven of the last eight Majors have been won by women who are still no older than 24—the odd won out being world No2 Simona Halep, who at the age of 29, still has a decade advantage over Williams.
What is more, Williams pulled out of her semi-final against world No1 Ash Barty after beating Danielle Collins earlier in the day, with a shoulder injury, but that is surely a precautionary measure: Her eye will be on the much bigger prize.
So will injury and quarantine play a part?
Many players are in action for the first time in four months, and that after the March-to-August pandemic closure last season. And some did not even get their five hours a day out of their hotel room once they got to Melbourne if they shared a flight with a ‘positive’ passenger.
One of the unfortunates was Bianca Andreescu, whose outstanding 2019 season peaked with the US Open title, beating Williams, while still a teenager. Still only 20, she has not played since injury at the end of that season, and pulled out of the short-draw Grampians Trophy this week. Her reason will strike a chord with many:
“It was mainly because I had two weeks of not training, and I didn’t want to take the risk of having just a couple of days’ preparation before the tournament. That was the main reason. I’m healthy, though. I’m ready to go.”
Djokovic reduced his exhibition match in Adelaide after developing blisters, while Nadal did not play the opening rounds of the ATP Cup due to back strain.
In the ATP Great Ocean Road Open, four men withdrew or retired—including another victim to blisters and another to back pain. In the ATP’s Murray River Open, top seed Stan Wawrinka pulled out of his quarter-final after two three-setters. As he said of a backed-up schedule that meant two matches in one day:
“At my age , I don’t think it’s great but we’ll see!”
Karolina Muchova could not manage her quarter-final against Kaia Kanepi in the Gippsland Trophy, joining two more earlier withdrawals.
In short, this may be a story that continues to unfold as six tournaments head into the Australian Open.
The young challengers
Those young women who won seven of the last eight Majors include: Naomi Osaka [a three-time champion], and Barty, Andreescu, Sofia Kenin [defending Australia champ] and Iga Swiatek. Add in 22-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, who arrived in Melbourne on a 14-match, three-title winning streak, and the top 20 has become a powerhouse of young players.
The wait for an equivalent surge in converting talent into Major titles has been longer on the ATP side, with the three most prolific winners at the highest level shutting out all-comers. But while Federer, like Williams, is 40 this year, Djokovic and Nadal will be 34 and 35 respectively come the summer.
Dominic Thiem was runner-up in Melbourne last year, narrowly losing out to Djokovic, but he went on to win his first Major at the US Open. He did so, however, without facing ‘the big three’ so many will be watching and waiting to see whether he can build on that solid foundation.
His problem may be less the men ahead of him than the ones behind. Because five men ranked from 4-10 are age 24 or under, led by Daniil Medvedev and his compatriot Andrey Rublev—and both Russians have impressed hugely already this season at the ATP Cup. In close order, too, are Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and Matteo Berrettini, with Denis Shapovalov not far behind, while the equally youthful Alex de Minaur and Felix Auger-Aliassime are top-20 players.
Zverev and Medvedev have already won multiple Masters titles, have reached a Major final, and, with Tsitsipas, have won the ATP Finals. Can they now take the ultimate step?
Bad luck for Britons
The only two British men in the main draw, No30 seed Dan Evans and No67 Cameron Norrie, have been drawn against one another in the first round, and with the prospect of Nadal in the third round.
Four British women feature in the women’s draw, and as luck would have it, qualifier Francesca Jones, making her debut Major appearance, opens against Shelby Rogers but is in the same segment as No58 Heather Watson, who first plays Kristyna Pliskova.
No13 seed Johanna Konta will face qualifier Kaja Juvan, and is in the eighth topped by defending champion Kenin.
In the bottom quarter, Katie Boulter, on a protected ranking after long nursing a back injury, faces a tricky opener against Daria Kasatkina, followed by Sabalenka in Round 2.
Other notable first round matches
· Karolina Muchova vs Jelena Ostapenko
· Yulia Putintseva vs Sloane Stephens
· Grigor Dimitrov vs Marin Cilic
· Kei Nishikori vs Pablo Carreno Busta
· Shapovalov vs Jannik Sinner
· Tsitsipas vs Gilles Simon
· Berrettini vs Kevin Anderson
Defending champion: Djokovic
Most titles: Djokovic (eight)
Former champs in draw: Djokovic (8), Wawrinka (1), Nadal (1)
Results so far in 2021:
· Delray Beach, Hubert Hurkacz beat Sebastian Korda
· Antalya Open, de Minaur beat Alexander Bublik
1. Novak Djokovic
2. Rafael Nadal
3. Dominic Thiem
4. Daniil Medvedev
5. Stefanos Tsitsipas
6. Alexander Zverev
7. Andrey Rublev
8. Diego Schwartzman
9. Matteo Berrettini
10. Gael Monfils
11. Denis Shapovalov
12. Roberto Bautista Agut
13. David Goffin
14. Milos Raonic
15. Pablo Carreno Busta
16. Fabio Fognini
17. Stan Wawrinka
18. Grigor Dimitrov
19. Karen Khachanov
20. Felix Auger-Aliassime
21. Alex de Minaur
22. Borna Coric
23. Dusan Lajovic
24. Casper Ruud
25. Benoit Paire
26. Hubert Hurkacz
27. Taylor Fritz
28. Filip Krajinovic
29. Ugo Humbert
30. Dan Evans
31. Lorenzo Sonego
32. Adrian Mannarino
Missing main-draw players: Roger Federer (No5), Christian Garin (22), John Isner (24), Kyle Edmund (50), Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (54), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (60), Fernando Verdasco (65), Lucas Pouille (74), Steve Johnson (75), Sebastian Korda (88), Joao Sousa (93), Philipp Kohlschrieber (100), Andy Murray (WC)
Defending champion: Sofia Kenin
Most titles: Margaret Court (11)
Former champs in draw: Kenin (1), Osaka (1), Serena Williams (7), Angelique Kerber (1), Victoria Azarenka (2)
Results so far in 2021:
· Abu Dhabi Open, Sabalenka beat Veronika Kudermetova
1. Ashleigh Barty
2. Simona Halep
3. Naomi Osaka
4. Sofia Kenin
5. Elina Svitolina
6. Karolina Pliskova
7. Aryna Sabalenka
8. Bianca Andreescu
9. Petra Kvitova
10. Serena Williams
11. Belinda Bencic
12. Victoria Azarenka
13. Johanna Konta
14. Garbine Muguruza
15. Iga Swiatek
16. Petra Martic
17. Elena Rybakina
18. Elise Mertens
19. Marketa Vondrousova
20. Maria Sakkari
21. Anett Kontaveit
22. Jennifer Brady
23. Angelique Kerber
24. Alison Riske
25. Karolina Muchova
26. Yulia Putintseva
27. Ons Jabeur
28. Donna Vekic
29. Ekaterina Alexandrova
30. Qiang Wang
31. Shuai Zhang
Missing main-draw players: Kiki Bertens (10), Madison Keys (17), Dayana Yastremska (29), Amanda Anisimova (31), Magda Linette (42), Carla Suarez Navarro (87), Taylor Townsend (92)