The anticipation of this year's Australian Open is peaking, despite a handful of top players not making the trip to Melbourne. The tennis world needs a bounce-back tournament after a roller coaster of a year, and what better way to start than Grand Slam level tennis.
Upon arrival, players quarantined in their hotel rooms and tested daily for the coronavirus. We are a week away from the opening rounds, and it's unknown what we can expect when the first ball is served. We did see many players still compete in 2020 in the heavily altered major tournaments. No spectators at the US Open. The French Open was played in early October. Those were first's. But it gave perspective to the players who competed, and as Covid still lurks, they will continue to be challenged.
"I can't recall a tournament, other than last year's US Open, where it's more difficult to predict," said Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated's executive editor, and senior writer.
A majority of the players are coming into the tournament, not playing meaningful matches for three months. Tennis is a global sport, and players had to adapt to travel restrictions and socially distant workouts and practices. The mental toughness it took to endure the past year of heavy change will be seen on the court when play begins. What will be fascinating to watch is which players stayed focused on their body and tennis rhythm. Given, hitting a tennis ball is muscle memory.
Wertheim, who has covered tennis for over 20 years and serves as an analyst for the Tennis Channel, says he believes these tournament conditions won't benefit younger players.
"I think the favorites, Nadal and Djokovic, are more mature, and best of five favors them rather than best of three," said Wertheim. "Also, they have the advantage of having a relatively tamed quarantine. They have a team around them. They have this infrastructure around them that money and success buys. So I suspect one of them will win."
The ATP tour's nature and how tournaments are structured tells us that not all tennis players are treated equally. Many younger players were not allowed out of their room during the quarantine process, where Nadal and Djokovic had much more leeway. Between the both of them, 37 Slam titles have been won, so the hardware certainly backs-up the privilege.
But there will be a lot to take away from this Australian Open, beyond set scores and numbers. Wertheim says analyzing players' performances will be quite telling about them individually. He'll be watching for players that can emerge from 14-days of quarantine and see how some will alchemize that into success, not frustration.
"I think the player that does play well out of quarantine has made quite a statement on their mental fitness," says Wertheim.
It seems nearly impossible for any young player to emerge in this year's tournament, especially given the circumstances. Having won seven Australian Open titles in the last decade, surely the tournament favorite is still Djokovic. Wertheim says Djokovic's dominance at Rod Laver Arena is comparable to Federer at Wimbledon or Nadal at the French Open.
The biggest impression to take home, I believe, is which players take a career-jump and focus on their improvement throughout the tournament. For Nadal and Djokovic, they aren't playing for the money or fame. They are competing for legacy. The heavy scrutinization will be on the younger generation and how their play fairs, given it is an era deemed to be concerned with social media hype and followers.