A Herculean effort was required to stage the 2021 Australian Open and navigate many of the pandemic restrictions. But the tournament still provided high-quality matches and produced two incredible champions in Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic.
With a delayed start, quarantine woes and the reemergence of the fans (then their absence and return yet again), Tennis Australia managed the ever-changing nature of the coronavirus as best as possible and continued to build on the successes of the 2020 US Open and French Open. There were upsets, miraculous runs by unknowns and thrilling on-court battles.
If there’s one thing the tournament made perfectly clear, it’s that, much like its predecessor, the 2021 season will be full of constant change — on and off the court.
Here are some key takeaways from the year’s first major.
The Naomi Osaka era is officially upon us
The 23-year-old left little doubt about her current place in women’s tennis with another dominant performance. Defeating Jennifer Brady in the final, Osaka notched her fourth major title, tying her with Kim Clijsters and trailing just Serena and Venus Williams among active players — and is now on a 21-match win streak.
While her straight-set victory over Serena Williams in the semifinals garnered most of the attention during her run in Melbourne, it was perhaps her match against two-time Slam champion Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round that was the most impressive. Pushed to the brink in the third set and down 5-3, Osaka staved off two match points and never looked back. She won the next three games and advanced, ultimately becoming the eighth woman in the Open era to win the Australian Open after saving a match point.
Naomi Osaka fights off two match points and eventually wins the third set to beat Garbine Muguruza and advance at the Australian Open.
With her latest triumph, as well as her current activism and celebrity off the court, Osaka is unquestionably the new face of the sport. But she doesn’t seem particularly fazed.
“Honestly, I don’t really think too much about it,” she said on Sunday. “For me, I just focus on myself and what I can do. So I don’t really put too much pressure on myself in that way.”
The King of Melbourne: Novak Djokovic
Moments after losing in straight sets in the men’s championship match on Sunday, Daniil Medvedev summed up his opponent perfectly during his runner-up speech:
“Nine Grand Slams in Australia, 18 in total, is amazing, and it’s probably not your last one,” he said with a laugh. “So I have no words to say.”
Djokovic cemented his status as the King of Melbourne with his lopsided 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Medvedev in less than two hours, and his self-proclaimed “love affair” with Rod Laver Arena continued. He has now won more hard-court major titles (12) than any other male player, and trails just Serena Williams overall.
After a rough year for Djokovic — with his ill-fated Adria Tour, anti-vaccination comments, disqualification at the US Open, loss in the French Open final and coming under scrutiny for a list of demands for Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley — this title might have meant the most of all.
“He needed this victory so badly,” his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said. “He is going through [a] lot, you know, especially after last year, US Open, then pretty poor final of Roland Garros, and [it] is not easy.”
Novak Djokovic wins his 18th Grand Slam with a comfortable straight sets victory over Daniil Medvedev.
For a moment, it looked like his unlucky streak would continue in Melbourne as he suffered what he later described as a muscle tear in his midsection during his match against Taylor Fritz in the third round. He needed five sets to eke out the victory and there was speculation leading into his next match he would be unable to play. But despite the setback, he found a way to not only compete, but keep winning.
Djokovic dropped five sets en route to the final — his most ever in a Slam in which he reached the final and the most by any No. 1 seed entering a major final since 1997 — but he didn’t falter on the biggest stage.
With his 18 major trophies, he is now just two behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most overall. With Federer slated to make his competitive return following knee surgery next month, expect the “Big Three” to continue battling for hardware and the men’s GOAT conversation to intensify.
Following a tough exit at the hands of Osaka in the semifinals, Serena Williams’ heartfelt moment with the crowd and her tearful and abruptly ended news conference left more questions than answers about her future in the sport.
“If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she said just moments before she started crying.
Since returning from childbirth in 2018, there has been an incessant focus from fans and the media on Williams’ ability and chances to win her 24th major title to tie Margaret Court’s long-standing record. She has made it to four finals and two semifinals in that time but has struggled in the biggest moments. She looked to arguably be playing her best tennis since her return during the fortnight (all while wearing a Flo-Jo-inspired catsuit), but simply didn’t have any answers once Osaka found her rhythm.
Still, she’ll jump to No. 7 in the latest rankings and showed she’s more than capable of beating some top-level players like Simona Halep and Aryna Sabalenka (and even set a new tournament record for fastest serve at 126 miles per hour). But at 39, it’s clear her time is nearing an end, and just how much longer the tennis world has to appreciate the GOAT while she’s still playing might be the biggest question in the sport.
After taking questions about her future, Serena Williams gets emotional and walks out.
While the women’s game has seen its fair share of improbable runs at Slams as of late, it has been significantly rarer for lower-ranked men to break through at majors.
That is, until Karatsev showed up in Melbourne and busted brackets like it was the NCAA tournament.
The 27-year-old, who has spent most of his career playing Challenger and Futures events, made it through qualifying in Doha to play in his first major — and then became the first man in the Open era to reach the semifinals in his Slam debut after knocking off No. 8 seed Diego Schwartzman, No. 20 Félix Auger-Aliassime and No. 17 Grigor Dimitrov. He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals but still made more than a name for himself.
Karatsev entered the tournament ranked No. 114 but leaves at No. 42 and having more than doubled his career earnings. After the loss, he said he was excited about having direct entry into tournaments going forward without having to qualify and having the experience of big matches under his belt. But his biggest takeaway from event?
“That I can play with everyone,” he said. “To be there and to compete with everyone.”
Can he replicate his success going forward? Will this be the start of other lower-ranked male players making deep runs at Slams? Wait and see.
The return (and exit … and return) of the crowd
After playing in front of no fans at the US Open and a very limited number at the French Open, the players were thrilled to see a sizable crowd — about 50% of normal capacity — for the first time in nearly a year when the Australian Open began.
“Compared to what we were playing [in front of] last year, which is zero, this is huge,” Venus Williams said after her first-round match. “I am not complaining. It’s exciting. I think every single person there was probably in awe to be sitting at a sporting event, as much as I was to have them there.”
In an unexpected sign of “back to normal,” one fan even got kicked out after heckling Nadal during his second-round win.
But on the fifth day of the tournament, the local Victorian government announced a mandatory five-day lockdown because of a small outbreak. Effective at 11:59 p.m., the awkward timing meant fans had to leave during the fourth set of the Djokovic-Fritz match. The match was stopped as fans begrudgingly made their way to the exits — and the atmosphere went from lively to eerily quiet in one of the most surreal scenes of the fortnight.
For the next five days of action, players had to revert to creating their own atmosphere. However, fans were allowed back in time for the semifinals, and some players struggled with the adjustment.
“I think it added a little bit of extra nerves, a little bit of extra pressure, just wanting to perform well in front of people,” Brady said after her semifinal victory over Karolina Muchova. “I think maybe I lost a little bit of the focus that I had before with no fans.”
Players will have to get used to the differing atmospheres from tournament to tournament. The Miami Open, the next event to be held in the United States, recently announced it would allow 15% capacity when it begins at the end of March.
The hard quarantine effect
Following the positive tests of passengers on three charter flights to Melbourne, 72 players — including Victoria Azarenka, Bianca Andreescu, Sloane Stephens and Kei Nishikori — were forced into a “hard quarantine” protocol for 14 days. Confined solely to their hotel rooms, they were provided a stationary bike, weights and various other equipment, but it wasn’t ideal training conditions ahead of a Grand Slam.
Some players complained (and were met with heavy criticism), but most understood. Still, Angelique Kerber, the three-time major champion who had been in self-isolation, couldn’t hide her frustration about her experience after losing in the first round.
“I was feeling this at the beginning, that of course my balls are always a little bit out and I was not feeling the rhythm that I was before the two weeks, to be honest,” she said. “When I’m looking back, of course I [had] not planned the two weeks’ hard quarantine. I don’t know, maybe if I knew that before to stay really two weeks in the hard quarantine without hitting a ball, maybe I would think twice about that. If I knew the real situation before my trip, I would think maybe twice to come here.”
Brady was the only singles player from the group to advance past the third round.
“I made my first Grand Slam final, so maybe if I wasn’t in quarantine I would have won,” she said jokingly. “I don’t think it really hampered me much. Who knows?”
Barbora Krejcikova and Rajeev Ram, the winning pair in mixed doubles, were both in the quarantine, but Krejcikova believed it might have been the difference-maker for the pair.
“I just feel really grateful,” Krejcikova said, “and I’m just really happy that even [though] we had to go through this hard quarantine, it just work[ed] out well and maybe that was the key to win the tournament. Who knows?”
Australia’s policy was particularly stringent in comparison to that of many other countries scheduled to host tournaments, so players will likely not have to experience a quarantine scenario again, barring a positive test.
After her incredible 2019 season, which saw her reach the fourth round at Wimbledon and the third round at the US Open, Gauff (at the age of 15) had the biggest win of her young career over Osaka, the reigning champion, in the third round of the 2020 Australian Open. The fan favorite lost to Sofia Kenin, the tournament’s eventual winner, in the round of 16 but looked poised for a huge year.
Of course, much of the season was shelved because of the pandemic, but Gauff still looked strong when the season resumed in August at the Top Seed Open with a semifinal run.
Since then, Gauff hasn’t advanced past the second round in any tournament. She was steadfast following her second-round loss to Elina Svitolina.
“I try not to compare results and everything, because the past is the past,” she said. “You focus on going right now, and yeah, I don’t really focus too much on past results and all that, because it happened and can’t change it.”
Due to her age, Gauff had been able to play only a limited schedule before the season shut down, so she hasn’t had a chance to play a full season on tour. But as she turns 17 next month and is allowed to play a larger slate of events, the 2021 season might allow her to find the routine and rhythm she has been lacking.
Gauff has had more success in doubles with partner Caty McNally, and the pair advanced to the quarterfinals in Melbourne for the second straight year.
Hawk-Eye Live takeover
After several years of experimenting with the idea at various tournaments and using the technology on all but two of the courts at the US Open, the Australian Open was the first major to be played entirely without line judges, relying solely on Hawk-Eye Live, an automated system that uses advanced imaging technology.
A prerecorded voice alerted players to calls like “out” or “fault” and there were no player challenges. If they disagreed with a call, they could request to watch a replay.
Many players were supportive of the change.
“No offense at all, but there are just no mistakes happening, and that’s really good in my opinion,” Dominic Thiem said. “If the electronic call is out, the ball is out, so there’s no room for mistakes. I like it.”
But there were a few moments that gave some fans and players pause on the complete reliance on technology. Francesca Jones believed Shelby Rogers hit a ball long, but it was called in, during a first-round match. Replays seemed to support Jones.
“I don’t know who is in charge of the refereeing system that’s here, but certainly questionable, extremely questionable,” she said after the match. “I have seen the replay that was shown on, was it Eurosport or wherever, and it’s clearly out.
“I much prefer human error than systematic error. Look, it’s a new system and I understand why it’s being used, but I think that definitely needs to be revised.”
As the season continues during the pandemic and tournaments will be looking to limit people on the courts and near players, the dependence on technology might become more prevalent — whether players like it or not.
Nick Kyrgios remains the most fun player in tennis
Just hours before the five-day lockdown went into effect, Kyrgios took the court at John Cain Arena to take on Thiem, the reigning US Open champion, in front of a packed crowd that seemed eager to make every dwindling second of freedom count.
Kyrgios was more than happy to help the cause.
Playing on his favorite court, he raced out to a two-set lead — clinching the second set with an underarm ace — powered by incredible athleticism, unbelievable shot selection and unparalleled showmanship. The crowd ate up his every move, and social media loved it, too.
Thiem fought back and miraculously won the match, but it almost didn’t matter. The adoring crowd continued waving its Australian flags and cheering loudly for Kyrgios until well after it was over. The energy made it feel more like a basketball game than a tennis match.
Kyrgios couldn’t stay composed in the tensest of moments against a top opponent. Then again, it would have been hard to imagine him playing his next match without fans had he advanced.
Kyrgios still found a way to make the highlight reel with doubles teammate and fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis, and he also dominated the news conferences with his war of words with Djokovic, proving yet again why he’s one of the sport’s most polarizing players.