Toss the playbook out the window.
The trusted and time-tested warm-ups, the routines, the rituals employed in the lead-up to the year’s first major? Yeah, you can scrap those, too. This is an Australian Open like no other, after all, one held amidst a global pandemic; one that’s seen athletes quarantined and the run-of-the-mill practice session become a treasured commodity.
Hotel rooms became improvised gymnasiums, fitted with stationary bikes, yoga matts and hand weights. Mattresses became backboards, entryways suddenly ideal for suicide sprints. But sometimes you’ve just got to make do.
“Players are so used to routines. They like to be in control. They’re not in control,” observed Chris Evert, a two-time Australian Open champion. “I think it’s going to demand a lot of patience and a lot of flexibility and who’s going to really adjust and adapt the best under those precarious circumstances.”
“This is obviously totally unprecedented,” echoed John McEnroe, who’ll partner with Evert in the ESPN broadcast booth throughout the fortnight. “I guess you have to sort of go into it in ‘be-prepared-for-anything’ mode. Look at the glass half-full instead of half-empty. Some players will be better at that than others.”
Novak Djokovic is among those who are learning to adjust on the fly. Though Serbia fell short in its title defence at the ATP Cup (l. to Germany, 2-1), the full-throttle match play should serve the top seed well as he sets out in pursuit of a record ninth Norman Brooks Challenge Cup at Melbourne Park. The two-time defending champion, who in 2020 matched boyhood idol Pete Sampras by finishing year-end No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings for a sixth time, will be the featured opening-night attraction in Rod Laver Arena when he faces veteran Frenchman Jeremy Chardy. Djokovic is a perfect 13-0 against his fellow 33-year-old, including a straight-sets victory on these same courts in their first encounter back in 2009.
Another former champion, 17th seed Stan Wawrinka, will also be in action Monday. The 2014 titlist is set to face Portugal’s Pedro Sousa in what will be their first meeting.
Tennis aficionados are gleefully envisioning a third-round tussle between countrymen Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, the 11th and 20th seeds, respectively. But both Canadians — first-round casualties last year — have their work cut out for them if that is to become a reality.
As luck would have it, Shapovalov drew fast-rising Italian Jannik Sinner in the opening round, a highly anticipated match-up in Margaret Court Arena. Sinner comes in hot, having won his second ATP Tour title at the Great Ocean Road Open on Sunday. The #NextGenATP Italian enters the Australian Open on a 10-match winning streak, after finishing his 2020 campaign with another title run at the Sofia Open.
The 20-year-old Auger-Aliassime, who advanced to his seventh ATP Tour final at the Murray River Open, will meet lucky loser Cedrik-Marcel Stebe of Germany on Court 13.
“Felix has an opportunity to be potentially the best player in the world in the future. There’s not many players that you can say that about,” said McEnroe of the World No. 21.
The question for both Sinner and Auger-Aliassime will be how they recover after the quick turnaround from Sunday’s ATP 250 finals. Will they have anything left in the tank?
Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime aren’t the only Canadians hitting the court on Day 1. No. 14 seed Milos Raonic, who’s reached the quarter-finals or better on five occasions in Melbourne, opens against Argentine Federico Coria in 1573 Arena.
Last year’s finalists Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem could meet in this year’s semi-finals.
No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem, who broke through for his first major singles title last year at the US Open, will face Kazakhstani Mikhail Kukushkin in Rod Laver Arena. Thiem’s foil at Flushing Meadows, No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev, is scheduled to take on former UCLA standout Marcos Giron of the United States. Zverev helped lead Germany past Serbia in Group A play at the ATP Cup, teaming with Jan-Lennard Struff in doubles to down Djokovic and Nikola Cacic for the clincher, 7-6(4), 5-7, 10-7.
Marin Cilic, an Australian Open finalist in 2018, won’t have the luxury of slowly working his way into form on the speedy courts of Melbourne Park. The 32-year-old Croat is sure to be tested from the get-go against Grigor Dimitrov, a semi-finalist in 2017. Cilic holds a 4-2 advantage in his ATP Head2Head rivalry against the talented Bulgarian, though Dimitrov claimed their most recent clash at Roland Garros in 2019, a thrilling 6-7(3), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-3 nail-biter.
Homegrown favourite Nick Kyrgios’ return to Grand Slam tennis is also among the most intriguing storylines as the 2021 Australian Open gets underway. Out of precaution, the Canberran opted out of both Roland Garros and the US Open in 2020, playing only nine matches all year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His first-round opponent will be Portuguese qualifier Frederico Ferreira Silva, ranked No. 184.
Also on the Day 1 schedule are four-time quarter-finalist Kei Nishikori vs. No. 15 Pablo Carreno Busta; Elias Ymer vs. No. 8 Diego Schwartzman; No. 10 Gael Monfils vs. Emil Ruusuvuori; Albert Ramos-Vinolas vs. No. 27 Taylor Fritz; and Reilly Opelka vs. Yen-Hsun Lu.
How they fare under these unique circumstances is anybody’s guess. That patience Evert spoke of, that ability to adjust, will surely come in handy.