Tennis

Australian Open: Seven things to know about the first Grand Slam of 2021

The tennis major will start three weeks after it normally does as athletes went through quarantine upon arrival in Melbourne. Here’s what to know ahead of the first major event of the new season.

By Nick McCarvel ·

For the Australian Open 2021, it’s better late than never.

The first Grand Slam of the Olympic tennis season gets underway on 8 February in Melbourne, pushed back by three weeks from its normal start date as tournament and government officials worked together to put players through two weeks of hotel quarantine upon their arrival in Australia.

But now it’s the tennis that will take centre stage, with eight-time and reigning men’s champion Novak Djokovic as the world No.1 on the men’s side, while American Sofia Kenin looks to successfully defend her title and home hope Ashleigh Barty is the top female.

Other top men to watch out for include Beijing 2008 gold medallist Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev, as well as Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Osaka Naomi and Petra Kvitova.

Here, seven things to watch for as the action unfolds Down Under. Need to know where you can catch the tennis on TV or streaming? We’ve got that for you, too.

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The sporting world has changed in a variety of ways in the last 12 months, including the pushback of Tokyo 2020 to this coming summer. Tennis has felt it, too, with Wimbledon being cancelled last year for the first time since World War II and the French Open moved from May/June to October as the sport took a five-month hiatus.

The AO was delayed only by three weeks, but international tennis players arriving to Australia were subject to the strictest COVID-19 protocols they’ve faced yet, as the country has come close to ridding community spread of the coronavirus.

From 15 January, players served a two-week quarantine, many only allowed out of their hotels for five hours per day for a practice and fitness session, in a careful “bio bubble” monitored by the government. Three arriving flights had positive COVID cases on them, however, so some 72 players served their two weeks of quarantine in hard lockdown, turning to their hotel walls, windows and vertical mattresses into practice partners. They’ll have an uphill climb to be at their peak form for two weeks of Grand Slam tennis.

But the players will be able compete in front of the biggest crowds they’ve seen in months. Victoria's minister for sport, Martin Pakula, said that up to 30,000 fans a day will be permitted for the first eight days of the tournament, split evenly between day and night session.

The crowd size will then be reduced to 25,000 fans a day from the quarter-finals on.

Djokovic goes for record No.9

Can anyone beat Nole inside Rod Laver Arena? Few have done it, as the Serbian, a bronze medallist at London 2012, is 8-0 in AO finals, including last year, when he beat Thiem in five sets.

Now 33, Djokovic is 75-8 at Melbourne Park and has won the last two times here, totalling 17 majors in his career. He’d like to add to that haul in 2021, as well as win his first Olympic gold in singles come Tokyo.

Only Nadal and Roger Federer are ahead of Djokovic in major singles won – at 20 – and while Federer is missing Australia for the first time since 1999 as he recovers from a knee surgery, Nadal will try for his second title here, champion only in 2009 but having made four other finals, including as recently as 2019.

Two-time Olympic gold medallist Andy Murray, a five-time runner-up here, will miss out on the AO, too, however, as he tested positive for COVID-19 before travelling to Australia from the U.K., ruling him out for the Australian summer.

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Serena chasing history, too: No.24

Like Djokovic and Nadal, Serena is chasing another major for her CV, the 39 year old mother and four-time Olympic gold medallist still seeking to tie the all-time record for majors won, which sits at 24.

“I really play for Grand Slams right now,” Williams said in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert. “I love still having the opportunity to be out here and be able to compete at this level. It’s an opportunity… I mean, the Grand Slams, they mean the world to me.”

Williams will have a tough women’s field to contend with, including defending champ and American compatriot Kenin, as well as sister Venus, who turned 40 last June. The two sisters, Olympic doubles champs at Sydney 2000, Beijing and London, could win a fourth doubles gold together if they pair up in Tokyo.

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Osaka, Halep, Andreescu: Star-studded women’s field

The star-studded women’s field is electric, as world No.1 Barty made the semi-finals last year, and will again try to become the first homegrown singles champion – male or female – since Chris O’Neil won the women’s title in 1978.

Two-time major champ Halep is the No.2 seed behind Barty, while No.3 Osaka, the 2019 winner here, was superb in September, winning the U.S. Open for a third major crown. That’s the last time she’s played, and Osaka will no doubt have all eyes on her come Tokyo and the Summer Games.

Youth Olympic Games medallist Iga Swiatek, a 19 year old from Poland, surprised for the French Open title in October, while Rio 2016 bronze medallist Kvitova, 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu and top eight stalwarts Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova are also ones to watch out for.

Serena is ranked No.11, while 2012-13 AO winner Victoria Azarenka, a fellow mum, is No.13. Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain was a finalist vs. Kenin last January.

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Thiem, Medvedev, Tsitsipas look for more breakthroughs

It’s no doubt Djokovic and Nadal are the headliners are the men’s side, but Thiem had his first major win at the U.S. Open in September, and is coached by double Olympic champion Nicolas Massu, though Massu is not in Melbourne to be at his side.

Medvedev, a 24 year old from Russia, finished 2020 in a blaze, winning the ATP Finals in London by beating Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem each. He’s joined by 23-year-old countryman Andrey Rublev, the world No.8, as Russians to watch, as well as Karen Khachanov.

Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas has the hair, the flair and a one-handed backhand for the highlight reels, the youngest player in the top 20 already with major success, having beaten Federer here two years ago in making the semi-finals.

Also to watch: No.7 Alexander Zverev, Argentina’s little guy with a big heart, Diego Swartzman, showstopper Gael Monfils and Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, who cracked the top 10 in 2020.

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Tokyo 2020: Olympics on the mind

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games are on the minds of tennis players no doubt, as the event is sandwiched between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Both Djokovic and Federer are still seeking a first Olympic gold in singles, Federer having won the doubles in Beijing 2008 with Stan Wawrinka.

Murray has expressed a desire to win an unprecedented third consecutive singles gold. He’s the only player to win back-to-back singles in the modern era of the tennis at the Summer Games.

Osaka will be the home favourite in the women’s event, while Nishikori Kei, who won bronze at Rio by defeating Nadal in the third-fourth match, will capture the imagination of the home fans on the men’s side.

Halep, close friends with gymnastics gold medallist and fellow Romanian Nadia Comaneci, has expressed her desire to stand atop the tennis podium, too.

The tennis event at the Games features singles, doubles and mixed doubles, the latter added in 2012. For a full explainer as to what to watch for in Tokyo for tennis, we’ve got you covered here.

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Home hopes: Barty, De Minaur, Kyrgios lead off

Barty was favoured in her semi-final vs. eventual champion Kenin last year, only to fall in two tight sets before a bummed out packed crowd. The world No.1, French Open champ in 2019, hasn't played a tour match since, having opted out of international travel as COVID-19 restrictions hit the tennis tours. Veteran Sam Stosur is a former Slam winner, but now is more of a standout doubles player.

Same goes for Nick Kyrgios, the fan favourite who is twice a quarter-finalist at majors and adores playing for the Australian fans. The world No.47 has been ranked as high as No.13 and can beat anyone - including wins over Djokovic and Nadal at big events.

The highest-ranked is No.23 Alex De Minaur, a scrappy baseliner who has worked with former world No.1 Lleyton Hewitt to make his game more physical. He started the season with a tournament win in Turkey. Last year he missed out on the Australian Open due to injury.

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