Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon looks ahead at the first Grand Slam of the season.
Can you feel it in the air?
As we near the rescheduled date for the launch of the first Grand Slam of the season—the event starts on Feb. 8, with the qualifying draw having already been settled—it feels like we might as well be light years away.
We’re knocking on the door of this Australian Open but at this point it feels more and more likely that the door will just stay shut.
Since the launch of this 2021 season, we’ve seen only a handful of fairly minor events played in both women’s and men’s tennis, lending this first month a weird vibe of frankly inconsequence. January is typically the month of the Australian Open but in 2021, it’s the month of, like, the Delray Beach Open? Yikes.
In light of this, uncertainty is the name of the event this year in Melbourne. For one thing, if you’re into gambling and these sorts of things it can be difficult finding actual good odds on who the champions might be at the Australian Open—but finding good odds is what we did: this year, the best Australian Open odds are here at best free spins.
There’s uncertainty too, if you’re one of the top players in the world and you’re expected to compete for the big prize in Australia. Due to the pandemic, this year’s event is played under strict health guidelines (as it should be, really); far from us the intention on rehashing the same talking points we’ve already harped on countless times already in this space, but this first Grand Slam of the new season will again follow the same different script than what we witnessed last year in August and onward.
(We’ll also overlook the fact that there really shouldn’t be any Australian Open this year, not when citizens of the country are stranded elsewhere and can’t come back home, but players from across the globe are allowed to visit the country for a tennis tournament. If the powers that be are intent on overlooking the signs and logic, then what can we really do?)
After Wimbledon, the Australian Open is right up there as far as operational competence goes. That they’re having this many issues is really just a sign of how absurdly difficult it is to try and run a Slam scale tournament, with international travel, during a spiking pandemic
— Matthew Willis (@MattRacquet) January 16, 2021
As mentioned in the opening of this piece, there will have been so few events and matches played in the lead-up to the Grand Slam that we’re bound to see surprises—likely both minor and major ones—once the event gets underway.
But it’s even worse than that when you zoom out and consider that it’s been almost a full year since the calendar was upended. Since March 2020, most players are lucky to have played more than a handful of events; they had better hope that tennis is indeed like cycling and it all comes back easily.
Not only that but as many as 72 players have come into contact with the virus on the flights they boarded to head to Australia, meaning that they’ll be confined to their hotel room for two full weeks while others are allowed to train and prepare for the matches. Among the group of the latter is 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, which shouldn’t help make the Canadian’s return to play quite the seamless affair she was probably hoping for. (This doesn’t sit well with Novak Djokovic, who wrote Australian Open organizer a formal letter this past weekend.)
All in all, this contributes to make this year’s edition of the Australian Open quite a weird and odd one. The best case scenario calls for players merely to have to limit their physical contact and focus on their training with the minimal staff or members of the team that they’ve brought alongside them. Knowing what we know about tennis players and how much they are creatures of habit, this should make everything that much more interesting.
So to recap, players will have had minimal time to really focus on their strategies and personal training by the time they step on the court, they probably won’t have their regular team with them, their daily preparation routine will have been uprooted and they’ll get to compete in the first Grand Slam of the season having played little to no matches in the days and weeks prior.
In other words, what could go wrong?
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG