It’s an Australian Open like no other. Whether you’re watching from the stands or following along at home, here are the moments to watch out for.
1. SERENA WILLIAMS CHASING HISTORY
For the fourth straight year, Williams arrives at the Australian Open in pursuit of the one major title she needs to tie Margaret Court’s all-time singles record of 24.
Since winning her 23rd on these courts in 2017, while pregnant with daughter Olympia, 11th-ranked Williams has lost all four of her major finals.
She is in her 40th year, and the next generation is here, with eight first-time winners from the past 13 grand slams played.
Even for the GOAT, it will be difficult now. Very, very difficult.
2. FEDERER-FREE ZONE
For the first time this century, the greatest of all tennis drawcards will be missing from his second most successful slam, having not played in more than 12 months and citing insufficient time to recover from his latest knee surgery.
Yet the waters were muddied when Andre Sa, Tennis Australia’s director of player relations, was quoted as saying that strict quarantine considerations were the real reason Federer and wife Mirka “did not approve the idea” of the family spending two weeks in lockdown.
Otherwise, of course, RF could have come alone. Or, well, not. Federer is in his 40th year. (See Williams S, above.) He will instead resume in Doha next month.
3. THE BALANCE OF THE BIG THREE
While Novak Djokovic continues to both conquer (on-court) and divide (off it), the eight-time Australian Open champion rightly starts a hot favourite for a remarkable ninth title and 18th major overall.
The Serb seems destined to eventually overtake both Federer and Rafael Nadal, statistically – if not on the list of the game’s most beloved.
However, slightly overlooked in all the pre-Open hullaballoo is the fact that if Rafa can add a second Melbourne Park crown to his success in long-ago 2009, he will overtake his pal Roger on the grand slam leaderboard for the first time.
Oh, and he’s the favourite for what would be an extraordinary 14th French Open triumph.
4. TOP-SEEDED AUSSIE ASH (#NOPRESSURETHOUGH)
As it was in 2020, Ash Barty arrives with a No.1 next to her name at the head of the women’s draw, with her first-round opponent to be revealed on Thursday.
The 2019 French Open champion opted for the safety of home ahead of the chance to defend her first major title in 2020, also skipping the US Open while reducing her golf handicap to three and becoming the Brookwater Golf Club women’s champion.
Last January, Barty fell two steps short of giving the host nation its first singles champion since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
The 24-year-old has played less than any of her main rivals since then, and there may be a little early rust, but count on her finding her groove soon enough.
5. KYRGIOS – OF COURSE
The subject of the opening episode of the ABC show Reputation Rehab has done it his way, as usual, but actually got it right this time.
The face of last year’s bushfire appeal then became the sport’s COVID conscience and, as has often been said amid all the pandemic craziness, when Nick Kyrgios becomes the voice of reason these are strange days indeed.
He looked sore and a little cranky in his first match in 344 days, and could still combust at any moment (refer to Wednesday’s sit-down against his pal Harry Bouchier, while calling for the supervisor after a spat with the chair umpire over a time violation warning) – but I do have just one request: may he play Djokovic in an early round. That would be some show.
6. THE SPORT’S NEWEST MAJOR CHAMPION
The unassuming Pole admits she was stunned to storm through the French Open draw without losing a set in seven dominating rounds of fierce hitting and cool composure.
Oh, and Iga Swiatek did all this while ranked 54th, and aged just 19.
Swiatek will be seeded (at No.15) in a major for the first time. There are more eyes on her now, she acknowledges.
Prepare to like what you see.
7. NINE STILL BOTCHING THE BASICS
Pronouncing every name correctly in what is a truly international sport is no easy task, so we’ll allow a little leeway for the jarring and too-frequent blunders.
But, surely, in year three of Nine’s broadcast deal, it’s not too much to expect the hosts (not the commentators, they’re great) to have learnt the difference between a game and a match, for example? Pet peeve, admittedly, but can’t be that hard.
8. EMPTY SEATS – LOTS OF ‘EM
After much negotiation, crowds have been capped at 390,000 over the February 8 to 21 fortnight – so less than half of last year’s 812,174.
Or a maximum of 30,000 per day, and all segregated in one of three defined zones around Rod Laver, Margaret Court or John Cain (formerly Hisense) arenas.
With the kiddies now back at school, numbers would have taken a hit, anyway, but there will still be enough fans to provide the atmosphere and energy the players crave, the broadcasters need and everyone forced to watch sport from afar has missed.
9. NO COVID-RELATED CRISIS
The hardest part has been done now: Getting more than 1200 players, officials, support staff and a sprinkling of media through hotel quarantine, back onto the court and out into the community.
As a result, the bio-secure bubbles at the pandemic editions of the US and French Opens are not required in Melbourne. And, ah the joys of being free to wander, dine out and mingle – even if a smiling Venus Williams described her discharge from her Adelaide hotel room as slightly anti-climactic.
“(I was) like, ‘Isn’t there going to be a band playing or something?’ And there was not. Nothing. I was, like, ‘Where are you people?’.’’
This is Australia, so they were probably out wandering, dining and mingling, too.
10. TENNYS SANDGREN
Only if we must. With the sound down.