| By Robbie Werdiger
Photo courtesy of USTA/Simon Bruty

 

The first Grand Slam tennis tournament of the year is in the books. The 2021 Australian Open included just about everything — from a hard two-week quarantine, a qualifier in the semifinals, hometown Aussie heroes, injuries galore, and a nine-time tournament champion. Players around the world arrived in Australia only to be confronted by the news that passengers on one of the chartered flights had registered positive COVID-19 tests, forcing 29 competitors in the men’s draw into a 14-day quarantine. None of these players made it past the second round and complained afterward how the quarantine threw them off their rhythm due to the absence of practice and fitness sessions.

Tennys Sandgren, a veteran American who has found his best form on the quick blue hard courts in Melbourne, was one of the players forced into hard quarantine. Sandgren fought his way into the quarterfinals in 2020, losing to Roger Federer in five sets after blowing seven match points. Sandgren crashed out of the tournament in the first round this year and explained how the quarantine contributed to his poor play.

"I'm physically not in shape enough to play with my opponent. My five-set record is pretty good. When I get to a fifth set, I'm in great shape. And today I'm tired after an hour and 10 minutes. It's a bit out of my control, and there are other players in the men's and women's field that are in the same boat. How would you imagine prepping for a hot kind of muggy day, three-out-of-five sets against a player of that caliber, when you can't play tennis? You can't go outside? You can't. It's impossible,” said Sangren.

Those not in quarantine were allowed to leave their rooms to practice for up to five hours a day, which still pales in comparison to normal practice routines leading up to majors. As a result, injuries surfaced throughout the men’s draw.

Novak Djokovic claimed to have torn an abdomen muscle during his third-round match and was pushed to five sets against the young American and 27th-seeded Taylor Fritz, but his stellar play later on in the tournament led players and coaches alike to question whether this wasn’t just another one of his tactics to throw his opponents off their rhythm.

In the fourth round, ninth-seeded Matteo Berrettini and No. 24 seed Casper Ruud also dealt with abdominal injuries, which forced Berretinni to withdraw before taking the court and Ruud to retire mid match. Grigor Dmitrov suffered from severe back spasms in his quarterfinal match and struggled to move in a four-set loss to Aslan Karatsev due to his injury.

Fortunately for the local Australian favorites, no quarantine was needed. Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, among others, relished the opportunity to play in front of their home fans again, and made headlines early on in the tournament. Kyrgios, renowned as a controversial tennis figure and returning to the pro tour after a 13-month absence, edged out No. 29 Ugo Humbert in five sets after saving match points in a packed and rowdy John Caine arena. Two days later, he returned to the same court and pushed Thiem to the brink in a five-set thriller. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a Kyrgios match without flashy trick shots, bickering with the umpires, on-court tantrums, and over-the-top celebrations.

Kyrgios’ best mate and doubles partner, Kokkinakis, reminded the world of his talents as well after being sidelined by a series of injuries. A big hitter and showman himself, Kokhinakis pushed the eventual semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas to a five-set battle in the second round.

Tsitsipas went on to play one of the best matches of his career against No. 2 Rafa Nadal in the quarterfinals, mounting a gritty comeback down two sets to love to defeat the 20-time Grand Slam champion.

The biggest underdog story, however, centered around Karatsev. Making one of the most remarkable runs in Australian Open history, the 114th-ranked qualifier found himself facing Djokovic in the semifinals of his Grand Slam debut. The 27-year-old Russian became the lowest-ranked semifinalist in tournament history alongside Patrick McEnroe, who was also ranked No. 114 when he made a Cinderella run to the semifinals in 1991.

Karatsev notched impressive wins against No. 8 Diego Schwartzman, No. 18 Grigor Dmitrov, and No. 20 Felix Auger Aliassime. Karatsev considered quitting the sport at one point, but found his footing on tour this past year. The late bloomer has no regrets about his decision to continue the grind as he took home a check this week for $662,000, $43,646 more than he had previously earned throughout his entire seven-year career.

In the end, the two pre-tournament favorites met up in the final, Djokovic and No. 4 Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev entered the matchup in pristine form, riding a twenty-match-winning streak beginning in early November and only losing two sets en route to his second major final. Djokovic faced a more difficult path. The Serbian lost five sets leading up to the semifinals, partly hampered by the ab injury. Many believed that this was Medvedev’s moment, the time for the “next generation” to break through and dethrone a member of tennis’ “Big Three” in the finals of a slam, signaling the changing of the guard.

When Djokovic is motivated and playing to win a major title, he very rarely falls short, especially in Australia. The 18-time Grand Slam champion came out of the gates focused, breaking the lanky 6’6” Russian in his first service game. While the first set was competitive, the nine-time Australian Open champ overwhelmed Medvedev in under two hours, cruising to a 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 victory. Now just two Grand Slams shy of tying Federer and Nadal’s record twenty titles, the youngest member of the Big Three is on track to surpass both all-time greats by a wide margin.

"Roger and Rafa inspire me, and as long as they go, I'll go. In a way, it's a race [to see] who plays tennis more and who wins more,” said Djokovic after his win.

 

Robbie Werdiger

Robbie Werdiger is a freshman at Georgetown University. A former standout at Horace Mann High School, Werdiger has competed on the national junior stage and has achieved USTA rankings of top 25 in the eastern section in numerous age groups. Additionally, Robbie has represented team USA at the world Maccabiah Games in Israel in 2017, the third largest international sporting event in the world.