— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) February 21, 2021Here are my top 10 Australian Open happenings, in ascending order:
10. My Australian vacation: Sofia Kenin entered the tournament as the fourth seed and defending champion. Her hopes were dashed early on, though, when she was easily defeated in the second round by noted giant-killer Kaia Kanepi. That had to be really disappointing, but Kenin’s troubles were just beginning. She competed in the Phillip Island Trophy event as the top seed, with a bye in the first round, but was upset in the second round by world number 727 Olivia Gadecki. Then the world number 4 experienced severe abdominal pain and wound up in a hospital, where she underwent an apendectomy. In a few days, though, Kenin was in the stands, enjoying both the semifinals and the final. Some fans were surprised to see her there, but hey—this is Sofia Kenin.
9. Remember us?: Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina are two players for whom the tennis world has carried big expectations, i.e., that they would win majors. Pliskova came close in 2016, when she lost the U.S. Open final to Angie Kerber. But since then—though she’s reached the semifinals of the French Open (not expected) and the Australian Open—she still hasn’t won one of the big four tournaments. At the 2021 Australian Open, she made it to the third round, but was upset by Karolina Muchova.
Svitolina has gotten as far as the semifinals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. This year in Melbourne, she beat some very good players (Bouzkova, Gauff, Putintseva), but lost to a very in-form Jessica Pegula in the round of 16.
Common sense tells us that, the longer these players go without winning majors, the more psychologically difficult it becomes for them to do so. But tennis is nothing if not unpredictable, and Both Pliskova and Svitolina are still in the mix.
8. She’s Diede De Great again!: After having (for her), a somewhat slumpy season in which her serve went away, Diede De Groot is back on top where she belongs. She won the wheelchair singles title, and—with partner Aniek Van Koot—she won the doubles championship, giving her a sixth sweep of both titles in majors.
7. Don't cry for me, Flushing Meadows: U.S. tennis is looking better ever month, and players from the USA really shone at this Australian Open. Ann Li made it to the third round, defeating both 31st seed Zhang Shuai and Alize Cornet. Big stage specialist Shelby Rogers didn’t disappoint—she advanced all the way to the round of 16, taking out 21st seed Anett Kontaveit along the way. Both Jessica Pegula and Serena Williams were semifinalists, and Jennifer Brady, of course, made it all the way to the final.
Pegula began her campaign with a bang, taking out two-time champion Victoria Azarenka in straight sets. She went on to defeat Sam Stosur, Kiki Mladenovic and 5th seed Elina Svitolina. Her very impressive run was stopped by Brady, who defeated her in three sets.
The great Serena Williams, in her quest to win 24 singles majors, continues to come so close. In the past few years, she has reached two Wimbledon finals (losing to Angie Kerber and Simona Halep) and two U.S. Open finals (losing to Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu). She lost a U.S. Open semifinal to Vika Azarenka last year, and this past week in Melbourne—during which she routinely beat Simona Halep in straight sets—she lost in the semifinals to Naomi Osaka, who defeated her 6-3, 6-4.
Williams’ exit from Melbourne included both a (literally) heartfelt goodbye to the crowd and a tearful exit from her press conference, leading to all kinds of speculation about her future. But only Serena knows (if, indeed, she does know) what comes next.
6. “Comeback” is her middle name: If you wanted some thrills to go with your Australian Open viewing, you had to look no farther than a court on which Karolina Muchova was playing. The talented Czech (redundant, isn’t it), whose body language and presence remind me so much of the great Chris Evert’s, found herself—again and again—in really tight spots, and she kept finding ways to get out of them.
Down 0-5 in her second set against 6th seed and countrywoman Karolina Pliskova, Muchova reeled off seven games, won the match, and saved herself the work of playing a third set. Down 0-4 in the first set against 18th seed Elise Mertens, Muchova went on to win that set and to defeat Mertens. In the quarterfinals, the Czech player was down a set and a break against world number 1 Ash Barty, but went on to defeat Barty, also. Muchova fell in the semifinals to Jennifer Brady in a three-set match, but her run was exciting and memorable.
5. The toughest opponent of all: Australia has done a marvelous job with handling the pandemic. But Covid crept in on a flight, and—as a result—72 players had to go into hard quarantine. This means that they did not get to practice at all, and all but one of them failed to get past the third round. Then, in the middle of the tournament, a cluster of coronavirus cases was found at a hotel near the Melbourne airport, so the city went into lockdown again, and for five days, players had to compete with no fans present.
4. Hat trick!: In 1965, Margaret Court won her third consecutive mixed doubles title, and that feat was not accomplished again until this year, when Czech doubles star Barbora Krejcikova did it.
3. World’s finest: Aryna Sabalenka had not intended to play doubles in Melbourne, but—the last minute—she decided to play in one more major with partner Elise Mertens. They won the title, defeating Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova in the final. This was the team’s second major championship—they won the U.S. Open in 2020. They are now the number 1 ranked doubles team in the world; however, though Mertens and Sabalenka will continue to play doubles together from time to time, Sabalenka has stated her intention to focus on her singles game. Mertens, incidentally, has finally come into her own in singles, also.
2. Hard quarantine, easy answers: What do you do when you’re one of the hottest players on the tour, you’re about to compete in a major, and you’re not allowed to leave your hotel room, or even open a window? You ride your stationery bike, lift some weights, and drag a mattress off one of the beds, stick it against the wall, and use it as a backboard, of course. That’s what Jennifer Brady did when she was placed in hard quarantine, and—while it was a far cry from hitting the courts to practice and going to the gym—it worked.
Brady, who could teach a class on attitude (Backspin Academy, are you listening?), never let any of it get her down, and—of the 72 players who were put into hard quarantine—she was the only one to advance past the third round. How did she do it? I’m not sure, but the attitude part surely helped. Jen Brady blazed her way through the draw, and made it all the way to the final, where she was finally defeated.
1. Queen of the hard courts: Naomi Osaka has now won four majors—two in Melbourne and two in the U.S. At the 2021 Australian Open, she defeated 2020 finalist Garbine Muguruza in the round of 16, and seven-time champion Serena Williams in the semifinals. Osaka’s combination of athleticism, mental toughness and court cleverness have quickly elevated her to an elite status in the sport.
It will be interesting to see what Osaka does to lift her game on clay and grass courts. She’s only 23 years old and has nowhere to go but up. In the meantime, her immense talent and admirable persona have already made her a major star (and the highest-paid female athlete in the world). We have watched Osaka grow up right before us, and now we get to watch her mature as a champion.