Who will win the Australian Open?

Expect plenty of new winners on the anything-can-happen women’s tour in 2021. Unbelievably, nine of the past 14 majors have been won by first-time champions. And on the men’s tour, the Next Gen could finally dethrone the Big Three, based on their dominance at the ATP Finals three months ago. Let’s check out the contenders and pick winners for the first big prize of the year, the rescheduled Australian Open starting February 8.

Ashleigh Barty thrives on the “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” cheers of her boisterous fans, and enjoys another home country advantage by not having to quarantine.   -  Getty Images

The women

Ashleigh Barty: Although the global pandemic sidelined world No. 1 Barty for 11 months last year, the insouciant 24-year-old should bounce back quickly. She thrives on the “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” cheers of her boisterous fans, and enjoys another home country advantage by not having to quarantine. Barty made the semifinals last year before surprise champion Sofia Kenin upset her 7-6, 7-5. A super athlete in the mould of 20th-century Aussie legends Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong, undersized (5’5) Ash boasts a potent serve and the tour’s best volley. A weak backhand, though, will again prevent Barty from advancing past the semis.

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Iga Swiatek: The Polish sensation confided that the three most important numbers in her phone were her dad, her sister and Daria Abramowicz. Daria who? She’s a sports psychologist who Swiatek credits with helping her shock the tennis world at the French Open last year. The 19-year-old revelation trounced the field there, surrendering only 28 games in seven matches for her maiden Grand Slam — and WTA singles — title. The talented, ambitious Swiatek won’t be a “one-Slam wonder” like Jelena Ostapenko or Sloane Stephens. Even so, hampered by a relatively low seeding (No. 17) in a full-strength field, she’ll only make the quarters.

Sofia Kenin proved her breakthrough Australian Open title in 2020 was no fluke by reaching the French Open final in October.   -  Getty Images

 

Sofia Kenin: Kenin proved her breakthrough Australian Open title was no fluke by reaching the French Open final in October. But, no longer the hunter, the feisty 21-year-old succumbed to the pressure of being the hunted when the canny, calm Swiatek upset her 6-4, 6-1 with clever shot variety. Also, the Russian-born American can be overpowered as Victoria Azarenka showed in her 6-0, 6-0 shutout at the Italian Open two weeks prior to that. The No. 4 Kenin is so solid and competitive that she’ll stay in the top 10, but she lacks an explosive weapon. As a result, she’ll bow out in the first week in Melbourne.

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Naomi Osaka: The three-time Grand Slam champion has emerged as the top player in the post-Serena Williams era. All three titles, which include the 2019 Australian Open, have come on hard courts. That makes Osaka, entering her prime at 23, the likely betting favourite this year in Melbourne. At her overpowering best, she resembles Serena — huge serves and ground strokes, and limited only by a mediocre volley. Her commendable political-social activism has energised rather than distracted the Japanese-Haitian, as attested by her capturing a second US Open crown last September. Osaka should easily advance to the final, but then lose her first major final.

Simona Halep: The 29-year-old Romanian is both the steadiest and fastest top-10 player, but her grooved, sometimes-aimless game can be disrupted by change of pace (Swiatek at the 2020 French Open) or overwhelmed with brute power (Amanda Anisimova at the 2019 French Open). Halep should become more tactical herself, and reprise how she turned the tide with first-strike tennis early in her stunning 6-2, 6-2 upset over Serena Williams in the 2019 Wimbledon final. “They [Halep and coach Darren Cahill] actually planned the preemptive strike and set the tempo early [to stymie Serena],” Paul Annacone told Baseline.tennis.com. “That was an amazing lesson in strategy.” Halep won’t win her third major, but how effectively she mixes up her shots will determine how far she goes.

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Elena Rybakina: Bookmakers may not tout No. 19-ranked Rybakina, but this prototypical power player has the physique (6’ tall and broad shoulders), weapons, fitness and attitude to break through in today’s anyone-can-beat-anyone women’s game. The Russian-born Kazakhstani, who favours hard courts, upset then-No. 3 Karolina Pliskova and Kenin on that surface to reach the Dubai final. Then she lost 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 to the more experienced Halep in the WTA “Match of the Year.” Rybakina also won Hobart and made three other finals — at Shenzhen, St Petersburg and Strasbourg. This rising star will knock off a seed or two and, perhaps, reach the semis.

No player faces a more daunting yet intriguing comeback than Bianca Andreescu. The WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2019 sat out the entire 2020 season with injuries.   -  AP

 

Bianca Andreescu: No player faces a more daunting yet intriguing comeback than Andreescu. The WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2019 sat out the entire 2020 season with injuries. Discounting the 20-year-old Canadian, however, is risky because after a shoulder injury sidelined her for three months in mid-2019, she rebounded with a fury to take the Rogers Cup and the US Open, beating Serena in the final for her first Grand Slam title. Andreescu’s imaginative repertoire of shots and devilish tactics discombobulate opponents’ games and composure. Always fun to watch, she is impossible to predict after such a long layoff. She could lose in the first round or the penultimate round.

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Coco Gauff: “My mission is to be the greatest,” said the ultra-confident, ambitious Gauff. “That’s my goal, to win as many Grand Slams as possible.” The 16-year-old prodigy is also humble and realistic enough to acknowledge her inexperience. “I just got on tour a little over a year ago, so I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go.” Not surprisingly, Gauff can soar to exhilarating heights, shocking defending champion Osaka 6-3, 6-4 at the 2020 Australian Open. But she can also plummet to exasperating lows, losing 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 to No. 159 Martina Trevisan at the French Open eight months later. Look for the strong, speedy Floridian to upset another top-10 seed this year. Whatever happens, expect more social activism from this teenager. Last year, Gauff tweeted, “I promise to always use my platform to help make the world a better place.”

Jennifer Brady: “We’ve all seen Jennifer Brady’s athleticism for years and wondered when she’d get it together mentally,” said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver during the 2020 US Open. The Floridian ended her long-time United States Tennis Association (USTA) connection and hired a German team — coach Michael Geserer along with physio Daniel Pohl — then spent the 2019 off-season training rigorously in Regensburg, Germany. Toughened physically and more focused mentally, the late-blooming (25-year-old) Brady finally broke through at the US Open, reaching her first major semifinal. There, her big first serve, wicked kick second serve and powerful topspin forehand extended Osaka to three sets. Barring a bad draw, this talented, confident comer should make the Aussie quarterfinals.

Winning her last 15 matches and three tournaments produced a career-high No. 7 ranking for Aryna Sabalenka.   -  Getty Images

 

Aryna Sabalenka: After the death of her 43-year-old father Sergey in November 2019, a heartbroken Sabalenka said, “I’m just trying to fight because my dad wanted me to be No. 1.” The tragedy also changed her perspective on life. She recently told WTA Insider: “I think after that moment I just understood there are so many things in life to be worried about and tennis is just a small part of my life, in the big picture.” That realisation has made the 23-year-old from Belarus happier off the court and calmer on it. The latter trait, plus improved movement and smarter shot selection — “Sometimes just putting the ball in, this is enough” — has turned this once-erratic power hitter into the hottest player on tour. Winning her last 15 matches and three tournaments produced a career-high No. 7 ranking. With a tiger tattooed on her left arm that “reminds me that you need to fight for each point,” Sabalenka will win her first Grand Slam title.

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Dark horses: For eye-catching athleticism and power, you can’t beat Marta Kostyuk. The fearless, 18-year-old Ukrainian, who was an accomplished gymnast at age 11 and does back flips after victories, extended Osaka to three sets at the US Open. Also, be sure to watch Karolina Muchova, Marie Bouzkova and Veronika Kudermetova, all potential top-tenners.

Did you know? Naomi Osaka, the Associated Press 2020 Female Athlete of the Year, recently invested in the North Carolina Courage women’s pro soccer team. “The women who have invested in me growing up made me who I am today, I don’t know where I would be without them,” she tweeted. “Throughout my career I’ve always received so much love from my fellow female athletes, so that’s why I am proud to share that I am now an owner of @TheNCCourage.”

The men

Rafael Nadal: “I’ve never been obsessed about being the best,” Nadal recently told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Rafa also often says he’s not obsessed about winning the most Slams. What matters most, though, Nadal is ferociously determined to win every point, game, set and match. On the debit side, the 34-year-old Spaniard has captured only one Australian title, and that was 12 years ago. On hard courts, Nadal has also lost his last nine matches to Djokovic, his last two against Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, and his last one against Daniil Medvedev. One of these four players will likely ruin his chances to take his 21st major and surpass Roger Federer.

The 34-year-old Rafael Nadal has captured only one Australian title, and that was 12 years ago.   -  Reuters

 

Alexander Zverev: Frustrated at his inability to dethrone any of the Big Three, Zverev told The Guardian (UK) 10 months ago: “Are we [Next-Genners] going to take over at some point? Yes! We have to! They’re not going to be there forever. [But] I don’t want to be the No. 1 in the world because other people aren’t playing. I want to be No. 1 because I’m better than everybody else.” The 23-year-old German kept getting closer last year, reaching the Australian Open semis and US Open final, where he lost a fifth-set tiebreaker (8-6) to Thiem. But his surprisingly low 2020 ATP stats — No. 33 serve rating, No. 18 return rating and No. 23 under pressure rating — mean he’ll have to drastically improve these critical areas to reach another major final.

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Daniil Medvedev: “He’s the best mover I’ve ever seen at this height. And he’s a very smart, tactical player,” raved ESPN analyst and 1980s superstar John McEnroe about Medvedev. Those attributes plus controlled aggression produced the 24-year-old Russian’s biggest title, the 2020 ATP Finals. There, he went a spectacular 5-0 with confidence-building victories over No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Nadal, No. 3 Thiem and No. 7 Zverev. On the other hand, Medvedev laments his confidence-sapping 0-6 career record in five-set matches. After 34-year-old Stan Wawrinka outlasted him in five sets in Melbourne a year ago, Medvedev confided, “Of course, feels not good to never win one... I don’t like to play five sets. I get tired.” Until Medvedev relishes competing in five-set battles, not to mention winning some, a Grand Slam title will elude him.

Dominic Thiem: “I know how tough and brutal a Grand Slam can be both physically and mentally,” Thiem said in a recent Australian Open Countdown interview. “I played one of the best tournaments ever in my career, [only] just failed.” The 27-year-old Austrian was referring to his heartbreaking five-set loss to Djokovic in the Aussie Open final a year ago. It marked his third straight Grand Slam final loss. Happily, eight months later, Thiem grabbed his first major at the US Open, breaking another streak when the Big Three had previously won 13 straight majors. At the 2020 ATP Finals, the hard hitter strangely became a passive slicer and lost to Medvedev in a super-close final. Thiem will learn from that tactical mistake and also from winning 76 percent of his net points at the 2020 Australian Open. “The Dominator” will reach the final for the second straight year.

With a work ethic second to none and guided by 2020 ATP Coach of the Year Fernando Vicente, Russia’s Andrey Rublev improved dramatically last year.   -  Getty Images

 

Andrey Rublev: With a work ethic second to none and guided by 2020 ATP Coach of the Year Fernando Vicente, Russia’s Rublev improved dramatically last year. He won a tour-high five titles and jumped from No. 23 to a career-high No. 8. “He’s one of the most hard-hitting players on tour,” said Zverev. “Out of every position, he can hit a winner.” Rublev’s most impressive wins came late in the season over Thiem (twice), Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and Denis Shapovalov. If the ambitious 23-year-old continues to improve his once-suspect shot selection, he should reach his first Australian Open quarterfinals.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas: Ever since the “Greek Freak” burst on the tennis scene by upsetting Federer at the Australian Open two years ago, his exciting shot-making and media-friendly personality have made him a crowd favourite. After outlasting Tsitsipas in a five-set semifinal at the 2020 French Open, world No. 1 Djokovic said, “He’s a big guy. Big serve. He has weapons, obviously serve and forehand, his backhand. He produces a lot of spin. He comes into the net. He can play aggressively. He can defend well because he moves well. He’s really a complete, all-around player.” Despite all those assets, the 6’4 hunk won no tournaments and defeated no top-five players last year. Why? In nine of his 14 defeats, Tsitsipas lost the deciding third or fifth set. If the handsome, hirsute Greek can win close matches, he’ll reach at least the quarters.

Jannik Sinner’s picture-perfect ground strokes resemble Novak Djokovic’s, and his calm demeanour is reminiscent of Bjorn Borg.   -  Getty Images

 

Jannik Sinner: The youngest player (19) ranked in the top 100 at No. 36, Sinner is already an impressive winner. He recorded three top-10 wins in 2020 — over Zverev, Tsitsipas and David Goffin — became the first player since Nadal in 2005 to reach the French Open quarterfinals in his tournament debut, and captured his first tournament in Sofia in November. His picture-perfect ground strokes resemble Djokovic’s, and his calm demeanour is reminiscent of Bjorn Borg. At Roland-Garros, where he upset Zverev, Sinner showcased the tournament’s most powerful forehand, averaging a blazing 84 mph. “I love his game and his composure even better,” raved Annacone, who formerly coached Federer and Pete Sampras. The 6’2 Italian with a formidable, all-court game should reach the second week at the Aussie Open and every major this year.

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Novak Djokovic: Although Djokovic occasionally loses his temper — such as his disastrous US Open disqualification for unintentionally whacking a lineswoman with a ball — perhaps paradoxically he ranks No. 1 in the ATP “Under Pressure” career stats. He also finished No. 1 in this category in 2020, highlighted by a terrific 16-2 record (85.7 percent) in tiebreakers. Even more amazing, he’s never lost a match after being up a match point. To win his record ninth Aussie title and 18th overall major, the Djoker will need to excel in pressure points and games again because he’ll face intense competition, particularly from Thiem, Medvedev and Zverev. The Serb’s burning desire to make history, overall technical excellence and sensational 32-10 record in five-set matches are three more reasons Djokovic will grab yet another major Down Under.

To win his record ninth Aussie title and 18th overall major, Novak Djokovic will need to excel in pressure points and games again because he’ll face intense competition, particularly from Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev.   -  Reuters

 

Dark horses: Already a crowd pleaser, qualifier Carlos Alcaraz is by far the youngest (17) and least known. The Spanish speedster has unlimited potential and evokes memories of the teenage Nadal, his idol. Other dangerous floaters in the draw include hyper-athletic Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime and a trio of young, steadily improving American power hitters — Sebastian Korda, Taylor Fritz and 6’11¾” giant Reilly Opelka, the tallest player in pro tennis history.

Did you know? Iconic baseball slugger Hank Aaron, who died on January 22, was an avid recreational player and big tennis fan? In a late 1990s Biofile interview Aaron did with writer Mark “Scoop” Malinowski, he noted his favourite tennis players: “Monica Seles. Venus and Serena Williams. Martina Hingis. Pete Sampras. And I guess my all-time favourite would have to be John McEnroe. I respect pro tennis players as much as any athletes for their conditioning and mental toughness.”

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