A Grand Slam Start Down Under For Tennis Stars Osaka and Djokovic

The 2021 Grand Slam season commenced this February with the star-studded Australian Open. The tournament consisted of ten professional brackets and $62,952,000 of prize money. Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic highlighted the tournament taking home singles glory.            

Officials decided to postpone the event by three weeks due to Covid-19 and allowed a reduced 30,000 fans into Melbourne Park for in-person viewing. Players arrived fourteen days early to quarantine, including seven days sequestered to their hotel rooms, forcing the hopefuls to get creative in their final days of pre-tournament preparation. 

Australia has managed to contain Covid-19 better than most of the world, and players and fans hoped for this tournament to mark a return to normalcy for the tennis world. However, in the middle of the tournament, the Victoria region of Australia entered a five-day lockdown quarantine which prohibited fans from attending any matches. The players and officials were deemed “essential workers” which allowed the tournament to continue. The restrictions and unexpected lockdown have led to an expected $78 million loss for Tennis Australia. 

The women’s singles tournament saw multiple upsets — including the No. 25 seed taking down the No. 1 seed — but ended as many expected with Naomi Osaka taking the title and solidifying her dominance. Osaka joins Monica Seles as the only woman to win their first four major final appearances in the Open era and now only trails the Williams sisters for overall Slam wins. After Serena Williams upset the No. 2 seed, Simona Halep, in the quarterfinals, the stage was set for an iconic battle between the tennis legend and the up-and-coming phenom, Osaka. 

Osaka’s composure and adaptability powered her past Williams 6-3, 6-4. Williams suffered 18 unforced errors including 10 on her fierce forehand stroke. Osaka is now 3-2 all-time against her childhood idol who she constantly praises including stating before the match “just to be on the court playing against her, for me, is a dream.” 

In the final, Osaka beat No. 22 seed Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-3, in what was Brady’s first Slam final. The match was full of uncharacteristic errors from both players early before Osaka capitalized on an unusual error by Brady who netted a short forehand. Osaka has won her last 21 matches and is set on continuing her Slam glory. 

The women’s wheelchair singles brought together the top two seeded players, Diede de Groot (No. 1) and Yui Kamiji (No. 2). The final proved to be everything fans could hope for with multiple tiebreakers before de Groot took the match 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-4). Kamiji expressed mixed feelings after losing her title to her longtime rival: “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to play the way I wanted to, but I’m happy with the way I performed today.” De Groot looks to complete her first calendar year singles Grand Slam.

On the men’s singles side, world number one Novak Djokovic continued his dominance,steamrolling past Daniil Medvedev to win his ninth Australian Open championship in straight sets 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. Medvedev rode a 20-match winning streak into the final and appeared to be in his best form yet, but Djokovic proved too tough a challenge for the relatively inexperienced Grand Slam player. Medvedev committed 30 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 15, in large part because of the shifting tactics of the world number one. 

For Djokovic, who picked up his 18th Slam title and is now within two titles of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, this title is one of his finest considering he was almost knocked out in the third round due to an oblique injury. Taylor Fritz pushed him to an uncommon fifth set and it appeared that Djokovic might not be able to finish the match after the injury which he described as the toughest he has ever dealt with at a Grand Slam tournament.

Medvedev remarked after the final about the big three of men’s tennis — Djokovic, Federer and Nadal — “When they are in the zone they are just better tennis players.” Djokovic appeared in the zone all match, winning seven of 11 breakpoints and 16 of the 18 points when he came to the net. This was a much-needed win for Djokovic after he was disqualified from the U.S. Open for swatting a ball that hit a line judge, and losing handily to Nadal, the world number two, in the French Open final. 

Nadal’s Australian Open ended earlier than expected after he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals. Tsitsipas relied on his serve to come back and win the last three sets after Nadal played a nearly flawless first two sets. The Big Three, who have never been beaten by a player younger than thirty in a final, continue to make the men’s tennis world a race against themselves — and the clock.

In the men’s wheelchair quad singles, world number one Dylan Alcott won twelve consecutive games after dropping the first en route to his seventh straight Australian open win. Alcott relied on his powerful serve and a sharp backhand to outlast Sam Schroder. Schroder upset the world number one at the 2020 U.S. Open. Fans were left furious when officials decided to move the men’s wheelchair quad singles to Margaret Court Arena, meaning the final was not initially televised. Reporters and fans called the decision “pathetic” and “disgraceful.” Alcott is an Australian tennis legend and the second-class treatment he received is another reminder of the long road towards equality for wheelchair tennis and athletes with a wide range of disabilities.

The respective doubles tournaments each saw previous major tournament winners finish on top. Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka captured their second slam title, previously winning the 2019 U.S. Open. However, this dynamic duo is parting ways for now, as Sabalenka wants to focus on her singles game. She is ranked seventh in singles and hopes to save energy in future tournaments to take a shot at singles glory. 

Barbora Krejcikova, one part of the runner-up duo, earned hardware of her own in the mixed doubles tournament with Rajeev Ram. The duo converted four of six break points to clinch the title in under an hour for the second time in three years. Ram was not able to complete a double double or defend his men’s doubles title after losing to Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek. Ram and his partner Joe Salisbury accredited their poor service performance while praising first-time winners Dodig and Polasek for “one of the best performances in a final ever.” In the men’s wheelchair doubles, Alfie Hewett had a short memory of his singles loss and joined Gordon Reid to successfully defend their Australian Open title. Dylan Alcott furthered his dominance with partner Heath Davidson to take home his 11th Australian open title over singles and doubles. Diede de Groot also completed a singles and doubles Australian open victory with her partner and fellow Dutch countrywoman Aniek van Koot in women’s wheelchair doubles. The pair already has a 2019 Grand Slam win under their belt winning all four major tournaments and cementing themselves as the tennis power partnership to watch.

The first major tournament of the year showed familiar legends reclaiming glory and introduced the world to up-and-coming tennis stars. Covid-19 blanketed the Australian Open but tennis players and fans around the world remained undeterred and were able to complete a successful event. Each match ended with an unfamiliar sight: players picked and disposed of their own crinkled water bottles and sweat-soaked towels rather than leave them for someone else, perhaps a marker of changes to come in the sports world.