Feature | Tennis

Osaka, Nishikori chase Olympic glory at home, and six more top tennis stories to watch in 2021

The tennis calendar has lots to watch out for. Can Osaka Naomi and Nishikori Kei strike gold for the hosts at the Tokyo Games? And who are the young stars to watch on the ATP and WTA Tours? We look at the year ahead.

By Nick McCarvel ·

Ready? Play.

That’s the phrase tennis officials are hoping to utter over and over again in 2021 after nearly six months were lost to the COVID-19 pandemic this past season, including the first cancellation of Wimbledon since World War II.

It’s an extra special year, with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games landing between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and two-time Olympic gold medallist Andy Murray already announcing his intent to try and compete in an event where he'd be shooting for an unprecedented third consecutive triumph.

It will be an uphill climb for Murray, who has struggled with injuries the last three years, as well as for fellow London 2012 gold medallist Serena Williams, who will also target a win in Tokyo, but perhaps not as much as a coveted 24th grand slam singles title – the all-time record she’s been one major tournament win away from since 2017.

Here, we explore those storylines and others, including home hopes Osaka Naomi and Nishikori Kei as they aim for the podium in Tokyo.

Men: Djokovic, Nadal lead the way – again

Ending the year as men's world No.1 for a record-tying sixth time, Novak Djokovic looks for new firsts in 2021, including trying to capture Olympic gold in singles. He’s the bronze medallist from Beijing 2008, losing to eventual champ Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals. In both 2012 and 2016 he lost to Juan Martin Del Potro at the Games, ‘Delpo’ winning bronze in London and silver in Rio.

Djokovic is also only weeks away from another record: The most weeks ever at No.1. Shortly after the Australian Open, he is likely to surpass a certain Swiss star, the ATP Tour writes.

The aforementioned Nadal already has singles and doubles Olympic gold – the latter won with Marc Lopez at Rio 2016 – so the Spaniard will no doubt set his sights on a mind-boggling 14th French Open singles title and a continued presence inside the world’s top 2, a position he’s in now for a 12th time to start a year anew. Nadal equalled Roger Federer at 20 grand slam singles titles in 2020. Can he get No.21 in 2021?

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Women: Serena is still hunting for major No.24

Williams may have started the Australian Open as No.11 in the world, but the 39-year-old is still one of the toughest asks in all of tennis as she continues to chase the all-time record of 24 singles majors won, having reached four finals in the last three years since giving birth to daughter Olympia in September 2017.

Williams and her older sister Venus are both four-time Olympic gold medallists, but their Tokyo Games chances hang with Serena, who would have to pick Venus as her doubles partner as the elder sister won’t be high-enough ranked to qualify in singles, among other factors mitigating Venus' Olympic chances.

The tennis rankings cutoff date for Tokyo is 7 June.

Serena’s fellow mum Victoria Azarenka is one to watch again after the Belarusian, a two-time Olympic medallist, beat Serena in the U.S. Open semi-finals and earned the WTA’s Comeback Player of the Year award.

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Tokyo 2020: Osaka, Nishikori eye the medal stand

Osaka was many organization’s female athlete of 2020, namely for her third major title at the U.S. Open, but also for the way she spoke out against social injustice. All eyes will be on her for the Tokyo Games, where she could win Japan its first gold medal in the sport, the event being held on her favourite surface: Hard courts. She emphasised that with her fourth Grand Slam trophy on that surface at the Australian Open to start 2021.

Nishikori, who beat Nadal for bronze in 2016, will have a tougher road to the podium.

He's now ranked No.41 in the world, having spent much of the last seven years inside the world’s top 10 and made it as high as No.4 during a successful career on the tour. But the best-of-three-set format could favour 31-year-old Nishikori, who, like his compatriot Osaka, thrives on the hard court surface.

Will we see Federer in 2021? It’s not clear

There are no promises to be made when it comes to Roger Federer, who's having a hiatus of more than a year – the longest of his career – due to a knee injury and subsequent surgery, having last played at the Australian Open in Jan. 2020.

He withdrew from the AO before the start of the event, citing his knee, and it’s hard to know if he will play at all in 2021, saying at a Swiss sports awards ceremony recently: “I hope that I will return to the courts in 2021. We will see.”

Federer is still chasing that elusive Olympic singles gold, having won silver in 2012 and capturing the doubles gold with Stan Wawrinka in 2008.

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Swiatek, Kenin aim to follow Slam success

After winning their maiden majors in 2020, Sofia Kenin of the U.S. and Iga Swiatek of Poland will aim to follow those successes, Kenin having already backed up her surprise AO win with a run to the French Open final (where she lost to Swiatek). Swiatek triumphed in Paris just two years after becoming the Youth Olympic Games winner in doubles in Buenos Aires.

They are just two of a host of must-see young players in the women’s game, along with world No.1 Ash Barty, the 2019 French Open champ, and 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu, who missed all of 2020 with injury, among others.

Plenty of established stars are still threats, including two-time Slam champ Garbiñe Muguruza, former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova, Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens. Reigning Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig continues to be dangerous, but is now ranked No.105.

Olympics of importance to many top stars

While tennis has four standout events each year – the Grand Slams – more and more players have turned to the Olympics as a badge of honour, the sport returning to the Olympic programme in 1988, and adding mixed doubles in 2012.

Rio 2016 bronze medallist Petra Kvitova is among them, saying about the Summer Games: “For me, Olympic Games... it's something totally different compared to any other event. I love it. Since I was a kid, I always love to play these team competitions, playing for my country.”

After missing Rio 2016, new U.S. Open champ Dominic Thiem had initially planned not to play in 2020, but after the Games were rescheduled, and with the growing influence of his coach, singles and doubles Olympic champ Nicolas Massu, Thiem has changed his tune: “To be honest, I changed my mind. It would be a dream to participate in the Olympics. I would love to play there next year.“

And two-time Slam winner Simona Halep will look for her first Olympic dent come July as well (she lost in the first round in 2012), the Romanian, a household name in her home country, maintaining a close friendship with countrywoman Nadia Comaneci. She said, according to the Guardian, after winning at Wimbledon in 2019: “I want to win any medal in the Olympics to fulfill everything I have done in tennis. It is a chance to play for my country and I have always loved to do that.”

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Who’s got next? Tsitsipas, Gauff, among those to watch

While Djokovic, Nadal, Serena, Federer, and other mainstay tennis names loom large in the game, players like Osaka, Thiem, Andreescu, and more, have broken through, and 2021 could offer the chance for many others.

Australian Open 2021 men's finallist Daniil Medvedev was also the 2019 U.S. Open runner-up to Nadal, and has a lethal game, while Alexander Zverev finished second to Thiem there in 2020. Also to watch in the men’s game is Medvedev’s Russian counterpart Andrey Rublev and Matteo Berrettini of Italy.

On the women’s side, many are curious to see if American Coco Gauff can rise from her current spot of No.48 at age 16, while Canada’s Leylah Annie Fernandez continues to impress, as well. Tsitsipas and Gauff also train with Patrick Mouratolgou, coach of Serena Williams.

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An earlier version of this article was published on 4th January 2021. It has been updated to include details from the Australian Open.