Tennis begins a new season with caution and optimism in equal measure
Australian Open 2021, starting in Melbourne on Monday, will be one of sport’s boldest experiments in the coronavirus era. It can indeed draw upon the experiences of the US Open and French Open, which were successfully held last year even as the pandemic raged in North America and Europe. But the backdrop Down Under is markedly different. Australia has been commended for its COVID-19 response, which has seen robust testing and contact-tracing strategies employed alongside severe lockdowns and border closures to limit the total number of cases to 28,850 and deaths to 909. To airlift more than 1,000 participants from across the world to such an environment has understandably raised hackles in Australian society. That there were eight positive cases among those associated with the tournament did not help, especially after Victoria — of which Melbourne is the most populous city — recently conjured a 61-day streak without a single locally acquired case. Tennis Australia has left no stone unturned, pushing the Major back by three weeks, spending a whopping $40 million on players’ quarantine, organising six warm-up events including the ATP Cup, keeping the overall prize purse same as previous year’s nearly $55 million and securing permission to allow up to 30,000 fans a day. But last week, one positive case at a tournament hotel was all it took to eliminate a full day’s tennis and send 500-odd players and staff into isolation and testing, showing how tenuous things are.
However, once the first ball is struck, events leading up are unlikely to distract from the on-court excellence. Barring 20-time Major winner Roger Federer, who is recovering from a knee injury, the full constellation of tennis stars has arrived. This will be the first opportunity for Rafael Nadal to take sole possession of the men’s record for most Slams, but the Spaniard is yet to play a match this season because of a bad back. Two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic, the clear favourite having triumphed a record eight times here, will want to add to his 17 Slams, while Dominic Thiem, the reigning US Open champion and a losing finalist in Melbourne last year, will look to burnish his credentials as a regular title-contender. Among women, World No.1 and home favourite Ashleigh Barty returns after skipping most of 2020, while a fit-again Serena Williams targets a record-equalling 24th Major. Defending champion Sofia Kenin and the current leading lady of the sport, Naomi Osaka, are the other top draws. Surprise French Open winner Iga Swiatek, and the trio of Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev among men will be watched with interest. Sumit Nagal, the lone Indian in the singles draw, would like to ruffle a few feathers. But when the mood is of cautious optimism, nothing can be taken for granted.