Tennis has returned to Melbourne, the positioning of the final Grand Slam occasion earlier than the coronavirus pandemic, discovering itself each profoundly modified because the final Australian Open and but eminently recognizable. The highest males are nonetheless dominating, Serena Williams remains to be in search of a twenty fourth Grand Slam title, and a rising forged of proficient younger champions is vying for a sturdy foothold atop the ever-undulating ladies’s tennis ladder.
Listed here are the most important tales of the Australian Open, which begins Monday.
Serena Williams Is Nonetheless within the Chase
After profitable her Open era-record twenty third Grand Slam singles title on the Australian Open 4 years in the past, Williams has returned to Melbourne for an eleventh try at including yet one more to her lofty haul.
Since getting back from maternity depart in 2018, Williams has repeatedly put herself in place to contend for an elusive twenty fourth singles title, having reached 4 Grand Slam finals and a semifinal however come up simply brief every time. Williams appeared sharp in her three matches at a warm-up occasion in Melbourne final week, reaching the semifinals on the energy of sturdy all-court play with specific acuity in her serve, which was reaching speeds upward of 120 miles per hour. That semifinal would have been a blockbuster in opposition to top-ranked Ashleigh Barty, however Williams withdrew nicely earlier than it will have begun, citing a shoulder drawback (and probably not relishing such a high-caliber throwdown simply two days earlier than a Grand Slam).
A video from Architectural Digest of Williams nonchalantly giving a tour of her trophy room went viral final week however didn’t do justice to the starvation Williams has maintained, in a profession that has already had a lot, to maintain working for extra. Courtney Nguyen, a senior author for WTA Insider, drew laughter when she advised Williams that “the best way we search for a fork in a drawer is the best way you take a look at your trophies.”
Margaret Courtroom, whose total document of 24 Grand Slam singles titles contains many gained in the course of the beginner period, is once more proving polarizing in Australia after an honor from the federal government as soon as once more shined a highlight on her historical past of bigoted remarks. As Williams reaches as near underdog standing as she may ever permit herself to get, public sentiment towards Williams in her quest to equal and surpass Courtroom’s document may by no means be increased.
Younger Champions Lead the Girls’s Facet
In a testomony to the depth of ladies’s tennis — and the dearth of any participant who has emerged as a persistently dominant presence — there are 4 ladies within the Australian Open draw who gained their most up-to-date matches at Grand Slams. One is Williams, who withdrew from the French Open in September after profitable her first-round match. The opposite three ladies all gained titles of their most up-to-date Grand Slam appearances, solidifying themselves as rising stars: Iga Swiatek, 19, final yr’s French Open champion; Naomi Osaka, 23, final yr’s United States Open champion; and the 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, 20.
Add to that blend the top-ranked Barty, 24, and the defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, 22, and it turns into clearer nonetheless that ladies’s tennis is spoiled for prospects for a possible standard-bearer for ladies’s tennis at Grand Slams.
Andreescu, who has not performed because the fall of 2019 after a knee harm, is probably the most enigmatic of the bunch. She overwhelmed all comers whereas wholesome that season, profitable the U.S. Open, Indian Wells and the Rogers Cup in Toronto, however she was not wholesome sufficient to vie for nearly another title. Her return to the tour has been stuffed with stops and begins, however she has mentioned she feels “able to go” within the Australian Open.
Andreescu mentioned that watching her matches from 2019 had helped her get “into the temper, into the mind-set.”
“I felt the identical issues like I did in 2019, which I feel actually helps me simply get in character,” Andreescu mentioned on Friday. “It actually impressed me, too, simply watching myself play once more. I don’t usually like to do this, however I feel it was good for me since I haven’t performed for thus lengthy. Hopefully that may assist me bounce again on the courtroom faster.”
The Males Can Run Up the Rating
Whereas the ladies have vanloads of trophy-bearing contenders in Melbourne, simply who will depart with the lads’s title in two weeks doesn’t appear as open a query.
High-ranked Novak Djokovic, who has gained the match a males’s document eight instances, is persistently at his greatest in Melbourne. Second-ranked Rafael Nadal, who thrashed Djokovic in October’s French Open ultimate, equaling Roger Federer’s whole of 20 Grand Slam titles, has persistently been some of the opportunistic rivals within the sport. He may pounce on his long-awaited first likelihood to surpass Federer’s mark. (Federer, who has not competed since an harm finally yr’s Australian Open, is entered in a March ATP occasion in Doha, Qatar.)
The only real interruption to the Massive 3’s hegemony within the final 4 seasons got here final yr when Djokovic, the lone member of the trio to compete on the U.S. Open, received himself defaulted from his fourth-round match by unintentionally hitting a ball right into a lineswoman’s throat. His absence cleared a path for Dominic Thiem to win his first Grand Slam ultimate on his fourth try. The third-ranked Thiem, and fourth-ranked Daniil Medvedev, are discovering success at smaller occasions, however they haven’t but proven a capability to beat Nadal or Djokovic — or, extra possible, each — to steal a Grand Slam title.
Pandemic Uncertainty Lingers
Final yr’s Australian Open was largely overshadowed by the wildfires burning throughout the nation, sometimes in a literal sense as smoke hung within the air over Melbourne.
This time, the haze over the match and the game is way extra existential. Australia has been among the many most profitable international locations in combating the coronavirus pandemic, with fewer than 1,000 folks having died of the sickness in a inhabitants of over 25 million, due to strict lockdowns and collaborative measures.
The choice to stage a global tennis occasion — and to afford arriving gamers some exemptions from the strict 14-day resort quarantine that others worldwide vacationers getting into the nation have endured — has proved divisive. Regardless of reasonably priced tickets, attendance on the warm-up occasions at Melbourne Park final week was meager, and a constructive take a look at from a employee within the resort quarantine program introduced midweek did little to attract locals. And with the difficulties round each home and worldwide journey, the crowds are going to be nearly fully native this yr.
Even when the Australian Open goes easily and is accomplished with none additional coronavirus scares, the game will depart Melbourne with an unclear outlook. Indian Wells, the most important match within the California desert every March, has already postponed this yr’s version.
To get again to something resembling regular, the skilled tennis excursions would require each reliably straightforward worldwide journey and crowds who’re ready and desperate to attend giant public occasions. So long as the journey to Australia has at all times been, these locations really feel even farther away proper now.