Another major tournament shaped by the pandemic is now in the books, with Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka emerging as the Australian Open singles champions. Here are our takeaways from the first major of 2021.
The Dam Holds
There were frequent whispers about a “changing of the guard.” Young blood was running hot. Only one of the game’s aging Big Four reached the semifinals—two were not even present. Daniil Medvedev has made a habit of mowing down Top 10 opponents as if they were crabgrass, but Djokovic’s straight-sets win over the Russian in the final indicated that the old order is not about to roll over.
This match may be remembered one day as the point when Djokovic crested the hill in a successful effort to chase down fellow GOAT candidates Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. With 18 singles majors, Djokovic trails both men by an attainable two titles. He’s a year younger than Nadal and six years younger than Federer. His long chase is now on a downslope.
Djokovic is prepared for the challenge. He might have been speaking to the entire cohort of ATP challengers when he told Medvedev, during the trophy presentation, “It’s a matter of time before you are going to win a Grand Slam. If you don’t mind, wait a few more years.”
Return of the Big Ball
Osaka is the best player in the WTA, and she’s showing a level of consistency and determination superior to that of other recent major champions. Her final with Jen Brady also emphatically affirmed a renaissance of athletic, power tennis. Both women have the stature, power and range to overwhelm less imposing top-of-the-heap peers—even Grand Slam champions like Simona Halep, Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek and Ash Barty—on notice.
Osaka, Serena Williams and Brady finished 1-2-3 in the tournament’s ace count. Osaka and Brady also finished No. 2 and 3 (behind leader Karolina Muchova) in the critical “second-serve return points won” category. Four of the five majors played before Osaka won the 2020 US Open were claimed by players of modest stature who lean more to counter-punching and court craft. That trend is probably changing.
The good news for these endangered pros is that the tour is soon moving to their preferred habitat, red clay. Brady has a losing record on clay (27-38) and she’s won just four matches in nine visits to Roland Garros. Osaka is 31-24, lifetime, on the surface, and 6-4 in four tries at the French Open. But the new champ Down Under isn’t too worried. “I think last year I didn’t play bad at all,” she said after the Australian Open final. “It’s just something that I have to get more used to.”
The Brady Bunch
Just one of the 55 singles players of the 72 who were forced into a 14-day hard lockdown due to stringent local Covid protocols made it to the fourth round—and she bolted all the way to the final: Brady.
What an effort.
This tournament could not have happened were it not for an act of ultimate sportsmanship by the cohort who were locked into small hotel rooms, unable even to open windows for two weeks. The group largely accepted its fate with equanimity—and tapped out in week one.
“Out!. . . ”, Line Judges
The pandemic has demonstrated that Hawk-Eye Live—the most advanced iteration of electronic line-calling, rushed into duty because of the pandemic—works near flawlessly. Contrary to what some thought, line judges probably miss the game a lot more than the game misses them.
Osaka spoke for many when she said, “It actually gets me really focused. If they do want to continue this way, I have no complaints about it because I think there’s a lot of arguments that aren’t going to happen because of this technology.”
The current ATP/WTA mandate for electronic line-calling expires when the pandemic is licked. Officials told TENNIS.com that, due to factors including cost—Hawk-Eye Live is more expensive than $50-and-a-baloney-sandwich-per-day volunteer judges—the post-pandemic future will probably incorporate a mix of electronic and traditional line-calling.
The Once—and Future—Queen?
Serena’s exit was a raw and emotional experience for the 39-year-old and her fans. The “R” word was whispered in many quarters. Fueled by an emotional message, posted by Williams on Instagram, that read to some as a farewell speech.
But Williams had her best tournament in a long time. She looked fitter and quicker than she has in a long time. The big serve was often devastating. Clay could be a significant challenge, but if Williams she can stay fit and the pandemic diminishes, she will get another shot at Grand Slam singles title No. 24 at the tournament where she is most dangerous, Wimbledon. Could she pass up the opportunity?
Yes, But is it Sustainable?
Tennis Australia pulled off its Slam in grand fashion, but the price was dear even for those lucky enough to experience “soft” lockdown. Injuries and loss of fitness were common. Player advocate Djokovic argued that the approach was unsustainable: “Now you have (Matteo) Berrettini, even Rafa, coming in with a back injury—myself, Sascha [Zverev] as well, struggled, [also],” he said. “I mean, obviously, it has something to do with these kinds of [lockdown] circumstances.”
Djokovic went as far as calling for tennis officials to look into adopting an NBA-type bubble approach, hosting upcoming tournaments in succession at a single site. But others quickly pointed out that there is, for now, no sign of the upcoming European events following the severe Australian model.
The Ball is in Rafa’s Court
Nadal’s quest for a men’s record 21 Grand Slam singles titles was the most under-the-radar storyline in Melbourne. His hunt was ultimately foiled when Stefanos Tsitsipas became just the second man, after Fabio Fognini, to beat Nadal after losing the first two sets in a Grand Slam match. But Nadal has often been snakebit Down Under, and he will now get the opportunity to surpass his friend Federer’s record on his beloved red clay at Roland Garros.
Nadal has never needed extra motivation to win in Paris. He’s still the “King of Clay.” Some suggested that he uncharacteristically lost fitness last in his match with Tsitsipas, and it’s true that he will turn 35 during Roland Garros (assuming it is played in its usual time slot). His quest for No. 21 will not be an overlooked storyline there.
As we get deeper into 2021, the extended ranking system adopted by the ATP and WTA during the pandemic looks worse and worse. A comparison between the “live” ATP and WTA rankings and the Universal Tennis Rating/rankings, which are based on a player’s last 30 results from the last 12 months (no pandemic adjustment), and factors in quality of the opponent and even the scores, vividly exposes the shortcomings.
Barty’s “live” ranking was still No. 1 after her quarterfinal loss, while UTR had already elevated Naomi Osaka to the top spot. Brady’s live WTA ranking before the final was No. 14, but UTR had the AO finalist at No. 4. Most striking: Sofia Kenin remained the WTA No. 4, while UTR dropped her to 33.
On the ATP side, Nadal is top-rated by UTR (admittedly, that’s surprising), with Djokovic down to No. 3, behind Medvedev. Andrey Rublev, No. 8 in the ATP ranking, is No. 4 in UTR, with Dominic Thiem at No. 6. Aslan Karatsev, the Russian qualifier who reached the AO semis, is No. 42 in the ATP ranking, but No. 14 in UTR. And so forth.
UTR isn’t the perfect system by any means, but it presents a better picture of who is hot—not just now, but over a reasonable period of time.
Tennis Australia spent money like a drunken sailor, no doubt in part due to its cozy relationship with Victorian state government. Despite a severe restriction on attendance (ticket sales) and massive Covid-related expenses, the tournament actually increased prize money in 2021, to $71.5 million. First-round losers in the singles collected a cool $100,000, an 11.1% jump over last year.
A much harsher reality awaits.
Djokovic admitted that the hefty purse was one reason players were willing to play the event and even endure quarantine, ominously adding: “But that’s not going to be the case on the ATP [or WTA] events, especially 250, 500. It’s huge prize money reductions.”
“I think the business side of what’s been going on is a little bit broken,” Milos Raonic commented during the first week of play.
Roger Federer Had a Good Tournament
Although Federer decided that his surgically repaired knee was unprepared for best-of-five set tennis in Melbourne, his presence was felt as players paid homage. Losing finalist Medvedev, on a 10-match win streak against Top 10 opponents, rued the fact that Federer was absent, saying: “I would love to have played him. I’m not saying anything. I just would love to play against him. I mean, to play against Roger is always a privilege.”
Nick Kyrgios waded into the GOAT debate after his first-round match, declaring: “In my opinion I believe Roger is the greatest of all time. With his skill set, the way he plays the game, I think it’s pure. I actually think talent-wise Nadal and Djokovic aren’t even close to Roger.”
Hurry back, Roger, they all miss you!
Nestled between January’s summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March’s Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open’s temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we’re spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).