Australian Open 2021, men's preview: Can anyone end Novak Djokovic's 'love affair' with Melbourne Park?
Novak Djokovic has won eight times at Melbourne Park in 16 visits going back to his first-ever major in 2008. In the last 10 years, he's won seven times.
External factors have threatened editions of the Australian Open for a while now. The soaring heat brought about the extreme heat policy in 1998 and it had to be modified in 2015 after criticism the year prior. In 2020, it was the bushfires which brought the Grand Slam into jeopardy. And this time, it is the coronavirus pandemic. Players have been forced into strict quarantines — holed up in their respective rooms for 14 days straight; warmup events were crammed into one week and a day's play had to be wiped off after a person tested COVID-19 positive.
If multiple external factors have threatened the staging of the 'Happy Slam', internally, on the court, it has been largely one-way traffic. If Rafael Nadal is your go-to prediction for French Open, Djokovic deserves that for the Australian Open.
The Serb, the defending champion, will seek a ninth Australian Open title, and more importantly, an 18th major overall starting 8 February. In last year's final, he came from two sets to one down to beat Dominic Thiem in a five-setter. Djokovic has won eight times here in 16 visits going back to his first-ever major in 2008. To further highlight his dominance on the Rod Laver Arena, he has won 7 of the last 10 Australian Opens.
"Well, it's a love affair. Probably something similar, maybe not like Rafa has with the French Open, but I've been feeling more comfortable on the court each year that I've been coming back. I mean, the more you win, obviously, the more confidence you have and the more pleasant you feel on the court. It just feels right," he said on Sunday.
"When I stepped on the court this year for the first time in the practice session, I relived some of the memories from last year, also the other years that I won the tournament here."
"Yeah, it just gives me a great sensation, great feeling, confidence. It feels right. It feels like the place where I should be and where I have historically always been able to perform my best tennis."
If the memories and records don't do the job of spurring Djokovic on, there is the crowd. After strict lockdown measures by the Victorian government, the Australian Open will allow up to 30,000 fans per day.
"We're still going to have the crowd here in Australian Open, which is different to most of the other tournaments where we didn't have the crowd. Of course, it's going to be in a less of a capacity," said Djokovic.
"It's great that at least you have, even if it's a small percentage of the people attending the match, it's still something. It still feels that you're not I don't want to say alone on the court, but especially at my age right now and stage of my career, I'm looking to feed off that energy from the crowd," he added.
But who can take the mantle from Djokovic? Let's look at his projected draw and opponents first. He starts against Jeremy Chardy in the first round and has a potential second round versus Frances Tiafoe, third round vs Reilly Opelka, fourth round vs Stan Wawrinka or Milos Raonic, quarters against either Alexander Zverev or Gael Monfils, a semi-final versus Thiem, Diego Schwartzman or Marin Cilic and a final against Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas.
In preparation, Djokovic beat Denis Shapovalov and Zverev in the ATP Cup singles matches and two more doubles matches, but couldn't take Serbia past the group stage. Based on his expression in the decisive doubles against Germany, it appeared the Serb really wanted a couple more matches to be confident of his chances.
Now, let's look at who can wrestle the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup from Novak's grasp.
The Spaniard comes into the Australian Open without having played a single match at the ATP Cup. For someone who prefers to get some match time under his belt, this is not great preparation. A sore back resulted in the Spaniard not playing for Spain in the team event and couldn't guarantee he would take court either starting tomorrow.
Rafa first noticed stiffness in his back during the exhibition match against Thiem in Adelaide. On Sunday, he admitted to have been "suffering" for 15 days.
"Not great obviously. It's true that for the last 15 days I have been suffering. In the beginning, the muscle was just a little bit tired but I feel (now) a little bit more stiff than usual," he said on his condition.
"The muscle is still tight, so it is difficult to play with freedom of movement. We are doing everything. My physio is here, the doctors here, everybody is helping me in all possible ways. I hope to be ready, that's all. I know sometimes things change quick," he added.
If the 2009 Australian Open champion does take court, he will be gunning to get past Roger Federer with a 21st Grand Slam title. He is slated to face Laslo Djere in the first round and has a potential quarter-final against Tsitsipas.
The weight is lifted. There is finally a young champion — finally, someone broke the streak of the Big 3. After several failed attempts, Thiem came good and got himself a Grand Slam trophy at the US Open. And yet, he's been flying under the radar coming into Melbourne. Despite the fact that he won at Flushing Meadows, reached the final here last year and the summit clash at the ATP Finals. But for the Austrian, it comes with the added pressure of proving that 2020 was no fluke.
Thiem arrives at Melbourne Park without his coach Nicolas Massu, who tested positive for the coronavirus, and is instead working with his father, Wolfgang. In the ATP Cup, Thiem suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of Matteo Berrettini before a comfortable win over Benoit Paire.
The draw has been fairly kind to him. He finds himself alongside Schwartzman, Shapovalov, Pablo Carreno Busta, Grigor Dimitrov, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Paire, Ugo Humbert and Nick Kyrgios in the quarter of the draw. Plenty of talent but enough to stop Thiem on a hard court? Maybe not.
Among strong contenders to solidify the notion of the end of the Big Three is Daniil Medvedev. The Russian has been a US Open finalist, an ATP Finals champion and on Sunday he led Russia to the ATP Cup title. Over the course of the week, he beat Schwartzman, Kei Nishikori, Zverev and Berrettini to pile up a 14-match winning streak. He's on a 10 match winning streak over top-10 opponents.
"It's a confidence boost. Get the momentum going, sometimes it helps you — I did last year (when) I won two tournaments in a row. At the same time, it's tiring. Played four tough matches, yesterday especially," said Medvedev on Sunday.
The 24-year-old showed his abilities in London at the ATP Finals where he beat Djokovic, Nadal and Thiem to become the first player to account for all of the world's top three at the season finale. If that wasn't enough to make you admire him, his celebrations are a bit off the cuff too.
Medvedev and childhood friend Andrey Rublev teamed up to take Russia to the title but at Australian Open, they're on collision course to potentially meet in the quarters. Daniil starts against a tricky opponent in Vasek Pospisil and his quarter of the draw includes seeds in Filip Krajinovic, Borna Coric, David Goffin, Roberto Bautista Agut, Casper Ruud and Lorenzo Sonego. Again, good quality but nowhere near the talent of Medvedev.
Medvedev's record at the Australian Open, however, doesn't inspire much confidence. All nine of his ATP titles have been on hard courts but he's not been able to progress past the fourth round in his last two visits to Melbourne Park. He last to Djokovic in 2019 and Wawrinka last year.
"I mean, it's not for me to decide. Hopefully, I can show a great level like I did these last matches, then I will have my chance to win matches. That's the most important," he said on his chances to go all the way.
"As you know, I always say this: I take it match by match. Every match is tough. You can get injured, you can lose, you can get a walkover. We never know. I just want to be there on the court and try to play some good tennis."
Zverev bettered his Grand Slam performances in 2020 and reached the final at US Open where he was beaten in five agonising sets by Thiem. The German had the trophy in his sights but nerves played a role and the Austrian just about scraped past.
Thiem was also Zverev's nemesis at last year's Australian Open, when the Austrian came from a set down to beat the German in the semi-final.
Off the court, Zverev arrives with plenty of baggage. Allegations of domestic abuse by a former girlfriend dominated headlines and later he split with coach David Ferrer.
At the ATP Cup, he played three three-setters beating Shapovalov but going down to Djokovic and Medvedev. In the doubles, he partnered Jan-Lennard Struff to win the decisive match against Serbia.
If you're keeping count: Zverev has 24 double faults to 38 aces from his three matches so far which is a fairly healthy ratio for him. Let's see how that changes at Melbourne Park.
Others to keep an eye out for: Andrey Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Among his 64 singles titles, Pete Sampras clinched 14 majors including seven Wimbledon, two Australian Opens and five US Open titles
Serena Williams stepped onto a hardcourt for the first time in a year and a half on Monday and fought through for a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Spain's Nuria Parrizas Diaz
Osaka had not played anywhere since a first-round loss to Amanda Anisimova at the French Open on May 23.