A more wide-open Open?

As much has already been made about international players coming over for the upcoming Australian Open – now less than three weeks away – being quarantined… and some not being happy about it… and others delighted with just having made it to Melbourne… and others not being able to get their pre-tournament fitness regimens in place, or even being creative about doing so, fans could see one knock-on effect of the first tennis major of 2021.

A very real possibility of some new winners.

The food for thought is this: In both the men’s and women’s draws, seeing someone with surnames other than Nadal, Djokovic, Federer (already bowed out, due to knee surgery), or Williams, emerging victorious and lifting the coveted Australian Open trophies over their heads could very well occur by the time February 21 rolls around.

With the very nature of the mandatory 14-day Victorian state quarantine regulations seeing players most likely reduced to just a mere week of conventional training and achieving match fitness before the first AO2021 matches take place on February 8, the gulf between at least the middle-rung players and darkhorses and the top players in each draw could be reduced significantly – at least for this upcoming fortnight.

So who’s likely to break through, to the benefit of a more level playing field?

According to the 2020 men’s end-of-year rankings, Daniil Medvedev – currently the World No. 4 – sits best-poised to break through to win his first major to go along with nine career titles. With the last of those victories saw him finish off 2020 strongly at the Nitto ATP Finals in London, he would have form and confidence on his side.

By the same tokens of form and confidence, World No. 3 Dominic Thiem will be looking to win back-to-back majors after winning the U.S. Open for his maiden major last September. Any smart money would have the Austrian as the most likely candidate to break into the stranglehold which Nadal and Djokovic possess a combined Melbourne Park monopoly upon.

Aside from the Australian hopefuls of Nick Kyrgios leading the way, after being successfully perceived at repairing his image, to win an elusive major on the home hardcourts, World No. 6 Stefano Tsitsipas, No. 7 Alexander Zverev, and Argentine Diego Schwartzman at No. 9 are also collectively looking for their first wins in majors.

Outside the top ten, it beggars belief that a player of Gael Monfils’ talents has yet to break through in a Grand Slam event, and if Milos Raonic can channel other elements of his game to complement his massive serve, the Canadian stands a chance to go beyond his “good enough for a deep run only” reputation.

On the women’s side in the singles, all domestic fans’ eyes will be on Ash Barty, and rightfully so as she starts 2021 as the top-ranked female player. As a past major winner – in the 2019 French Open – she knows exactly what to expect to balance the pressures of representing Australia with the challenges to go very deep into a Grand Slam tournament.

Otherwise, the women’s top ten – without either of the Williams sisters present in it for the first time in ages – remains littered with possibilities of some very good players vying for their first major wins.

Simona Halep has won at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the recent past, but will be looking to avenge her defeat in the 2018 final to Caroline Wozniacki to add Melbourne Park to her list of career conquests.

World No. 4 Sofia Kenin, who will be looking to go back-to-back at Melbourne Park, and No. 5 Elina Svitolina might be the best options at challenging Barty and Haelp, should Serena Williams be unable to break through from her current No. 11 place to take out her 24th career Grand Slam.

Outside the women’s top ten, can Victoria Azarenka continue her impressive comeback from 2020 which saw her fall just short at Flushing Meadows, and grunt her way back to another final? Or perhaps can Americans Madison Keys and Jennifer Brady finally realise their glaring heaps of unrealised potential with deep runs into the tournament? If so, that could set either of them up for a shot at glory.

One other scary thought in the women’s singles: What is a former Australian Open winner – as recently as in 2016 – in Angelique Kerber doing at No. 25 in the world right now? If she gets a favourable draw, a menacing run to rampage her way into a final could be entirely possible.

All of the above is, of course, subject to the official draws occurring within the next fortnight. However, it does show us just how wide open this Australian Open can be with a few breaks within the storylines – especially with the current one already occurring before a fuzzy ball has been smacked over a net.

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