The build-up to the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of 2021, has been unlike any other with two weeks of quarantine, a week packed with simultaneous events, a day’s delay due to a coronavirus scare and uncertainty over fitness and form.
But one look at the men’s draw and a sense of familiarly returns. Two-time defending Novak Djokovic is top seed and favourite again followed by the next two – Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem.
Djokovic claimed his 17th Grand Slam in last year’s gripping final, when he fought back to beat Thiem in five. But that final set the tone for the rest of the interrupted season. Thiem broke the hegemony of the Big Three by winning his first Major at the US Open. The next, a delayed French Open, was won by Rafael Nadal to equal the men’s Grand Slam record tally of 20.
The last three champions thus automatically become the players to watch out for.
But as always, there’s hope of a first-time men’s champion. The top 10 seeds are filled with promising players and with form tough to judge due to limited playing opportunities during the pandemic, it gives them a slight edge of surprise. Fourth seed Daniil Medvedev and sixth seed Alexander Zverev are both Grand Slam finalists while fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas has reached the semis in Melbourne before and Andrey Rublev has impressed tremendously with five titles in 2020.
Here’s a look at the contenders ahead of the season-opening Slam
Can anyone stop Djokovic’s title defence?
Djokovic may have had a turbulent year in 2020, but the Australian Open’s undisputed king will take some stopping as he targets a record-extending ninth title. The 33-year-old’s eighth victory in 16 visits reinforced his dominance where he claimed his first title in 2008 and has won seven of the last 10 editions.
He is three away from the all-time record of 20 shared by Nadal and Roger Federer and has his best chance to add the tally comes at his favourite venue. The world No 1 is unbeaten since his shock defeat by Hyeon Chung in the 2018 round of 16. Since then he has beaten the likes Nadal, Federer, Thiem.
The world No 1 has had an unbeaten start to 2021 with two battling wins at the ATP Cup and played doubles. He couldn’t manage the ATP Cup defence, but will take a lot more to stop his title defence at Melbourne. Thiem stopped him at ATP Finals in a gripping match while Nadal crushed him in the French Open finals, but to do that at Melbourne Park will take special effort.
A potentially major record for Nadal
Playing his first Grand Slam since his record-equalling 20th at Roland Garros, Nadal gunning for an unprecedented 21st Major will be one of the major storylines in Melbourne.
But the fact remains that it is now 12 years since he won his lone title in Melbourne, despite four more trips to the final. The Spaniard also has fitness concerns after he pulled out of two days’ play at ATP Cup with a sore back, which means he has little match practise heading into the tournament.
In the last couple of years, Nadal has lost only to the best of players - Federer, Djokovic, Thiem, – and injury in Melbourne. While a lot will depend on his physical level, mentally the Spaniard will be ready for a big fortnight.
A title will not only give Nadal the sole lead in the record books but make him the first of the Big Three to win each Grand Slam twice – a most distinguished of milestones. He can hardly have any more motivation than becoming the first man to reach 21 while also putting more daylight between him and Djokovic.
Thiem’s time to continue?
With his ever-improving ability on hard courts and consistency at big tournaments, Thiem can be pegged as one of the favourites. The world No 3 came agonisingly close to victory against Djokovic in 2020, but this year he arrives as a Grand Slam champion for the first time and the experience of winning a hard-fought Major will serve him well.
A Major trophy had long looked inevitable for the 27-year-old, who led Djokovic two sets to one in last year’s final and a second one seems just as likely. Third-ranked Thiem also reached a second straight title match at the ATP Finals in November and despite another runner-up plat there, he will expect to continue his steady upward trajectory this year.
However, Thiem is in Melbourne without his coach Nicolas Massu, who tested positive for the coronavirus, and is instead working under his father, Wolfgang. Another drawback is the danger of being undercooked after lost his first match to Matteo Berrettini and getting a walkover in his second at ATP Cup.
Medvedev leads the breakthrough challengers
If the last few tournaments are any indication, Medvedev is a lead challenger to become the newest first-time champion. The 24-year-old Russian is a player who has been knocking on the door for a while after he reached the 2019 US Open final – losing in five sets to Nadal.
But it was his ending to of last season that gives him an edge. He won 10 straight matches to lift the Paris Masters and ATP Finals. On the hard courts of London, he beat Djokovic and Nadal before toppling Thiem in an epic final and becoming the first player to account for all of the world’s top three at the season finale.
Medvedev has won all nine of his career titles on hard courts, and will now want to improve on his fourth-round showings on his last two visits to Melbourne. And the win at the ATP Cup has pushed his unbeaten streak to 14 matches now.
Like Medvedev, reaching a first Grand Slam final at the US Open was a big step forward for Zverev, but the German will have a bigger prize in his sights. It was at last year’s Australian Open that he actually showed his Slam potential when he reached his first semi-final before going down to Thiem. The 23-year-old came desperately close to winning his first in New York losing the fifth-set tiebreak. At the ATP Cup, he has shown form by pushing Djokovic and Medvedev to three before losing in singles.
But Zverev arrives with baggage this year, after allegations of domestic abuse by a former girlfriend and a recent split with new coach David Ferrer and old management agency, Federer’s Team 8. If he can deal with off-court distractions and keep his nerves, he will back himself to go deep.
Tsitsipas, who had famously beaten Federer to reach the semi-finals, started his season with a win and a loss in singles at the ATP Cup, in keeping with his erratic trajectory at most events. He reached the semi-finals at is last Major and will be looking to go one further.