After a year of uncertainty, tennis fans have something to rejoice, as the 2021 Australian Open - the first Grand Slam event of the season - gets underway from February 8 to 21, 2021.
Due to the pandemic and the strict quarantine rules in Australia, though, the qualifying event has been shifted abroad. The men’s qualifying event will be held in Doha, Qatar while the women’s qualifiers will be held in Dubai, UAE, simultaneously from January 10-13.
This will be the 109th edition of the Australian Open.
Four Indian players – Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ramkumar Ramanathan in the men’s, and Ankita Raina and Karman Kaur Thandi in the women’s – have entered the Australian Open qualifiers this year.
We take a look at the only two Indians who have actually managed to negotiate the Australian Open qualifiers in the past.
The Delhi-native has a special connection with the Australian Open. In 2009, Bhambri became the first Indian player since Leander Paes (1991 US Open) to win a junior Grand Slam as he claimed the boys’ title in Melbourne. Bhambri overcame Alexandros-Ferdinandos Georgoudas of Greece in the final to win the Australian Open junior crown.
His performance in the juniors helped him secure a wildcard for the 2010 Australian Open qualifying draw.
The Australian Open remains the only major Bhambri has qualified for till date.
In 2015, while ranked 317 in the world, he defeated three top-200 players to qualify for the main draw. But he didn’t have the luck of the draw. The Indian faced former major champion Andy Murray in the very first round. Though he got better as the match progressed, Bhambri went down 3-6, 4-6, 6-7 (3) to Murray in the first round.
The last time he played the Australian Open was in 2018. He qualified for the main draw by beating Brayden Schnur, Carlos Taberner and Peter Polansky. It was Bhambri’s best chance to win a round as he faced Marcos Baghdatis in the opener.
Baghdatis, in 2018, was a pale version of the battler who had reached the Australian Open finals in 2006 against odds. He was ranked slightly below the Indian – 123 to Bhambri’s 119. The Cypriot took a closely fought first set 7-4 in the tie breaker before winning the next two sets 6-4 and 6-3.
Bhambri reached a career high of 83 in April that year and went on to play all the three majors. But he played only one match at the Antwerp Open after the US Open and has been out with injury ever since.
The highest-ranked Indian player in the ATP rankings, Gunneswaran will travel to Doha hoping to qualify for the Australian Open for a third straight year.
The Chennai-based player had lost almost five years on the pro tour due to chronic knee injuries. He secured his first Australian Open main draw berth in 2019, at the age of 29.
Playing his very first Grand Slam main draw match against World No 39 Frances Tiafoe, Gunneswaran wilted after early promise. He went down 6-7 (7), 3-6, 3-6.
A year later, the Indian lost to former top-10 player Ernests Gulbis 6-7 (2), 2-6 in the third round of qualifying. But he entered the main draw as a ‘lucky loser’ after a few last-minute withdrawals at the Australian Open.
But the Indian couldn’t capitalize on this stroke of fortune and lost in straight sets to Japanese wildcard Tatsuma Ito.