This article first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. Click Here to read the full digital edition.
The 2021 Grand Slam season in professional tennis will begin, as it normally does each year, in Melbourne with the Australian Open, but this edition of the tournament Down Under will present a far different scenario than previous years.
For starters, the 2021 Australian Open will not be played in January, instead beginning on February 8. Players will be required to quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in Melbourne, meaning the qualifying rounds will be played in Doha, Qatar for the ATP Tour and Dubai, United Arab Emirates for the WTA Tour.
In between the qualifying rounds and the start of the Australian Open, there will be 250-level tournaments held in Melbourne for both the men’s and women’s tours, which will lead in to the commencement of the year’s first Grand Slam.
Once the players get acclimated and the tournament gets underway, the attention will turn to the play between the white lines. The defending champions on each respective side enter the event with far different career resumes, as American Sofia Kenin won her first major last year when she defeated Garbine Muguruza to hoist the Aussie trophy, while Serbia’s Novak Djokovic outlasted Dominic Thiem in a five-set thriller to win his second straight and eighth Australian Open overall.
“This tournament sets a high standard for all the other tournaments around the world and it’s definitely my favorite court, my favorite stadium in the world,” said Djokovic. “I’m blessed to hold this trophy once again.”
The win was the beginning of what was an historic start to the season for Djokovic, who carried an undefeated record all the way late into the summer before being infamously defaulted at the U.S. Open. Djokovic will be the tournament’s clear favorite in 2021 as he seeks his third straight title in Oz.
On the flip side, the loss only added fuel to the fire for Thiem, the Austrian native who continued to come up short in Grand Slam finals. But those tough experiences would pay off in the long run as later in the year, at the aforementioned U.S. Open, Thiem defeated Alexander Zverev in a five-set match to win his first career title.
"It was tough to stay there and to still believe, but I did," said Thiem. "It's a Slam final...the belief was always there."
While Thiem would falter in the French Open quarterfinals, a long layoff in the winter could refuel him for a deep run in Melbourne where he will seek a return to the Australian Open final.
Speaking of belief, few players on either tour possess more confidence in their own abilities than Kenin, who is soft-spoken off the court but carries a huge game on it. Following her title a year ago, Kenin would go on to have the best year of her career which included a run to the French Open finals and ultimately winning WTA’s Player of the Year.
"This is such an honor," she said afterwards. "I'm so proud of myself, my dad, my team, everyone that has been around me. We've all worked hard. We've been through tough times. We did it. We fought. I'm just on cloud nine."
Now Kenin is the event’s defending champion, and like Thiem, a long layoff in the offseason should provide a healthy and rested Kenin, which does not bode well for the rest of the field. The American should be considered one of the tournament’s favorites.
The New Year also brings with it excitement of possible breakout stars to emerge. Kenin’s opponent in the French Open, Poland’s Iga Swiatek, still just a teenager, will look to build off of her tremendous victory at Roland Garros as she transitions from clay to hard courts. She reached the fourth round at the Australian Open this time last year, and with Grand Slam experience now in her possession, Swiatek looks to be a force on the tour, and most notably at the major events.
One player to look out for on the men’s side is Brandon Nakashima, another teenager who put together a solid year in 2020. He reached the quarterfinals at Delray Beach and the semifinals at the Indian Wells Challenger. Most recently, he won five straight matches at the Orlando Challenger en route to the title. A fan of playing on hard courts, Nakashima could be due for a run in Melbourne, and will certainly be a tough out for whomever he encounters in the draw.
The Australian Open will give fans a fascinating look into what the sport of tennis may look like in 2021 and beyond. An important factor will be how players adjust to the “bubble” like set up, and if the tournament can be held without any positive cases or breaches in protocols. The later start date, while it interferes with the schedule for the rest of the year on both tours, allows organizers to set up a safe environment for players and staff, and the goal is to have the majority of the conversation around the tournament focused on tennis, and not COVID-19.
New York Tennis Magazine’s Contenders, Pretenders and Sleepers
The two-time defending champion is owner of eight Australian Open titles overall, and is coming off of a dominating 2020 season. While the season would end with losses at the U.S. Open and French Open, Djokovic is the world’s best hard-court player and will be more motivated than ever as we enter 2021.
Just a few points away from being a Grand Slam champion, Alexander Zverev came up just short in the U.S. Open finals a few months ago. Instead, the young German is still searching for his first major title. An excellent hard court player with the type of power that can help him topple any opponent, Zverev will look to build off his first Grand Slam final appearance and try to go one match further this time around.
It was a bit of a quiet year for Romania’s Simona Halep, who opted not to travel to the United States for the Western & Southern and U.S. Opens. She returned when the tours moved back to Europe, and she lost to eventual champion Iga Swiatek in the French Open Round of 16. Owner of two Grand Slam titles (one on clay and one on grass), Halep could be due for her first hard-court Grand Slam victory.
The defending champion, Sofia Kenin proved to the world in 2020 that she has the chops to perform on the biggest stage. Kenin won her first Grand Slam in Melbourne, and concluded the year by reaching the French Open finals. With more pressure on her this year, don’t look for Kenin to falter underneath it, but instead embrace the challenge as she aims to repeat as champion.
One of the flashiest and most enjoyable players to watch on tour, Gael Monfils is always must-see television. However, his game translates much better to the clay, and Monfils has never been able to maintain consistency for the two-week long Grand Slams. His best showing at the Australian Open was a quarterfinal appearance in 2016, which will be hard to duplicate in 2021.
Daniil Medvedev has been one of the best players on tour over the last couple of years, but has yet to find success at the Australian Open. Despite being a premier hard-court player, and one who is currently ranked fourth, Medvedev has failed to make it out of the fourth round in Melbourne in his career, and could struggle to do so again this year.
The greatest player of all-time has not performed her best at the Grand Slams in recent years. She is a seven-time champion Down Under, but failed to make it out of the third- round last year, and with another year gone, Serena may struggle to reach the second week of the 2021 Australian Open.
The top-ranked woman in the world may feel a bit of added pressure competing in her home country of Australia. She did reach the semifinals last year, before falling to Kenin, but lacks the type of power that wins on hard courts, and therefore may not be able to repeat that performance this time around.
Once considered a phenom, Grigor Dimitrov will turn 30 in 2021, and could be due for the biggest season of his career. He has been successful at the Australian Open in the past, and has the type of game that could dominate on hard courts. Dimitrov has gone through a number of coaches through the past couple of years, but, now a veteran, Dimitrov has the experience and game to make a deep run Down Under.
The flashy lefty is one of the most intriguing players on the men’s tour. Shapovalov is coming off a quarterfinal showing at the U.S. Open in 2020, and will aim to carry that success across the world to Australia where he is a real threat to make a deep run at the title.
One could make the argument that Elina Svitolina is the most accomplished player on the women’s tour without a Grand Slam title to her name. The Ukrainian is a mainstay in the Top 10 and has reached two major semifinals, but expect that to change in 2021. Svitolina has the game and confidence to beat anyone on tour, and could very well breakthrough when the women’s tour returns in Australia in 2021.
The big-hitting American burst onto the scene in 2020 as she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Few players strike the ball harder than Brady, the former UCLA standout, and the fast courts in Melbourne suit her game perfectly. With Grand Slam experience under her belt, Brady should be considered one of the favorites at this year’s Australian Open, so don’t be surprised if she advances deep into the tournament.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org