On the one hand, the first week of the Australian Open 2021 seemed like any other Grand slam. Most of the usual suspects and favorites have cruised into the second week with the odd hiccup, some seeded players fell by the wayside, a few new names and potential stars have cropped up out of nowhere, whilst Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios continued to berate themselves and most of the officials and people around them!
On the other hand, there were some instances that we have not and hopefully will never see again. For the first few days, only 30,000 spectators were allowed into the Melbourne park arena for all the matches as against almost 60,000 every day in the last few years. The outside courts and the grounds looked and felt empty. If that wasn’t enough, the Victorian government announced another five day lockdown due to a few fresh cases of COVID-19.
The world witnessed the bizarre and surreal images of Djokovic and his third round opponent, Taylor Fritz having to take a break in their match in order for the arena to be vacated by the spectators who had to be in their homes before midnight on the night of 12 February. It’s the first time that players had to be kept waiting until the stadium was emptied whereas it’s always the spectators who have to wait for the players.
The other very unusual sight is that there are no linespersons for the event and all calls are made by the on-court cameras and the chair umpire. This has already led to some glaring errors especially on the ‘let’ serves and also triggered an interesting debate on whether technology will take over tennis and if this is the tipping point at which technology starts playing a much larger role in the sport of tennis.
The strict COVID-19 rules meant that a lot of players that faced hard quarantine after entering Australia did not have the best preparation for the year’s first Grand Slam. For the big players, who are used to having their coaches, trainers and support staff travel with them, the severe restrictions meant that they had to cut down on their entourages which put them out of their comfort zone in the preparation leading upto the event. Quite a few of the big players complained about their lack of preparedness whilst the journeymen and women continued to go about their business as usual.
The speed of the courts was another topic that held centre stage with many players complaining that the courts were some of the fastest that they have ever played on. I believe this is due to the fact that the event this year is in February which is slightly cooler than January and that has speeded up the surface. Either way, the speed of the court is just like the weather that all players have to deal with equally and anyone complaining about it are just showing themselves in poor light.
The biggest upsets in the first week would have to be the tame exit of Sofia Kenin, the women’s defending champion, and Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion. Whilst Kenin clearly could not handle the pressure of being the defending champion, breaking down in the post match press conference whilst talking about the pressure, Andresscu is coming back after a career-threatening knee injury and was always going to struggle to get back into the rigours of the tour so early in her comeback.
From the Indian perspective, the Open was quite disappointing. Ankita Raina made history of sorts by becoming only the fifth women’s player to feature in the main draw of a Grand Slam following in the footsteps of Nirupama Mankad, Nirupama Vaidyanathan, Sania Mirza and Shikha Uberoi. However, she could barely make any impact in her first round exit in the women’s doubles and her lack of doubles prowess at the top level was severely exposed.
In fact, the Indian players did not manage to win even one set in all their matches in the men’s doubles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles which is definitely a cause for concern going ahead. If we are to start performing at the Grand Slams, it’s time that the federation and the stakeholders start thinking out of the box and perhaps look at having a specialist doubles academy and start grooming specialist doubles players which also happens in badminton.
The start of the second week will have all the top players in the men’s and women’s taking centre stage. Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka will hold centre stage as the favorites in the women’s event. Keep a watch out for Daniil Medvedev and Stephanos Tsitipas in the men and Iga Swiatek and Ashleigh Barty in the women. All of them while being highly ranked are not spoken about as much and are in my opinion, the dark horses this year and could upset the applecart of the favorites.
The one thing that I am hoping and praying for is that the Victorian State government does not extend the lockdown beyond five days and allows spectators to come back into Melbourne Park for the semi-finals and finals. After all that the players, organizers, support staff, media, and everyone in the tennis world have gone through to make this event happen, the entry of spectators would surely be the icing on the cake for the event and for the wonderful game of tennis as well.
Gaurav Natekar is a double Asian Games gold medallist, Arjuna Awardee and former India No 1 tennis player.