2021 Australian Open Preview: The Contenders

For many of us, the new year symbolizes a clean slate. For tennis fans, it also marks the beginning of an action-packed tournament season, and it starts off with a bang: the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year.

For many of us, the new year symbolizes a clean slate. For tennis fans, it also marks the beginning of an action-packed tournament season, and it starts off with a bang: the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year. The main draw matches are scheduled February 8 to February 21, giving the players enough time for a 14-day quarantine while the qualifying rounds take place. As for spectators, the three main stadiums—Rod Laver Arena, Margaret Court Arena and John Cain Arena—will host fans at 25 percent capacity.

So far one player arriving on a flight to Melbourne has already tested positive for Covid-19. The 72 main draw players who traveled on those flights are under a strict two-week quarantine and unable to leave their hotel rooms. Bianca Andreescu, one of the players in lockdown, has resorted to hitting against the window in her hotel. As for the other players, they each have scheduled practice times, supervised by a marshal who monitors players’ movements and a cleaning crew who diligently ensures that practice facilities are sterile for each player. Moving players in and out of practice while following Covid-19-safe guidelines can take up to 16 hours a day.

While the tournament is playing through the pandemic, there are still a few top players not competing. After two knee surgeries in 2020, fans were looking forward to Roger Federer’s return to the tour in 2021, however, to the disappointment of many, Federer will not be competing at the Australian Open this year. Had he been fit to play, he would have been a favorite to win. Andy Murray tested positive for Covid-19 last week and withdrew from the tournament after failing to negotiate a “workable quarantine” with the tournament officials. He would have needed to test negative before boarding a flight to Melbourne, then complete a 14-day quarantine in Australia, which would have conflicted with the start date of the main draw. Other big-name players not playing this year include Americans John Isner and Madison Keys, Juan Martin Del Potro, and number 10 overall Kiki Bertens.

With Federer not competing this year, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is a favorite to clinch the title once again. Djokovic, who is the first seed in the men’s draw and currently number one in the ATP rankings, won the Australian Open in both 2018 and 2019, further cementing his status as men’s tennis’ premier hard court player. Although Rafael Nadal is better known for his dominant clay-court record, Nadal is still a contender, especially with Federer out of the tournament. One can’t overlook Austria’s Dominic Thiem, though, the second seed in the men’s draw, who beat Djokovic in a grueling three-set match at the 2020 ATP Nitto Tour Finals. Thiem is the reigning champion of the U.S. Open, further proving his aptitude on the hard surface. Another player to watch out for is Daniil Medvedev, who is the fourth seed after Djokovic, Thiem, and Nadal. His game is unconventional, though that can often be an effective weapon, on full display at the ATP Nitto Tour Finals, where Medvedev beat Nadal, Djokovic, and Thiem to win the tournament. The Russian has momentum going into Melbourne, and if he can keep it up, Medvedev might emerge as the 2021 Australian Open champion, but being the lowest of the top seeds, he will have the most difficult path to the latter stages.

On the women’s side, Naomi Osaka, the third seed, presents a strong case to win in Melbourne. She has been dominant on hard courts, winning three hard court Grand Slams in a row since winning the 2018 U.S. Open, after which she also captured the following Australian Open in 2019. Her powerful baseline play and strong serves will always give her a chance, especially as she’s become more consistent, cutting down on unforced errors. While Osaka is a fan favorite, Ash Barty is currently number one in the world and the tournament’s first seed. Barty, who is from Australia, will have the advantage of playing in front of her home crowd, potentially motivating her to perform better even with reduced crowd sizes. Serena Williams, a record seven-time Australian Open champion, will return to Melbourne in hopes of winning a record 24th Grand Slam title. She seems likely to eventually win that 24th trophy, given she has had an incredible record at Grand Slams in the past few years, making it to four finals. This may be the tournament where Williams pushes one step further and wins the Slam, considering she still manages to impose herself on matches with her dominant groundstrokes. Two-time champion Victoria Azarenka deserves a mention after her impressive run at the 2020 U.S. Open, where she lost to Osaka in the finals, while 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek is one to look out for as a dark horse. At only 19-years-old, her crafty game could take her to the title as it did in Paris.

While players gear up to showcase their best games, it is possible that the tournament’s conditions, namely the virus, could cause damage to the tournament’s flow as players’ quarantines end and fans (partially) fill the stands. It is growing tougher each year to predict who might win with the younger generation of players in both the mens and womens’ game players quickly rising to the top, replacing the older contenders like Nadal, Williams, and Federer. However the tournament ends, fans globally will be thrilled to watch the best tennis players in the world compete again in the 2021 season.

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