The Australian Open will start Sunday after a long buildup involving positive COVID-19 tests on the planes bringing players to Australia; 14-day quarantines for every internationally arriving player; calls from opposition Australian government leaders to cancel the tournament; the decision to allow 30,000 fans onto the grounds every day; and a positive test from a staff member at the hotel where the players were staying that nearly derailed the tournament at the last minute. A nation that has been praised for its handling of the pandemic (Australia averaged just six new cases per day over the past week) is preparing to host the first major international sports tournament of 2021. It is the first tennis major since the French Open in Paris in October.
When: Feb. 7-21
Where: Melbourne, Australia
TV: Opening-round coverage starts at 6 p.m. Sunday on ESPN before switching to ESPN2 at 9 p.m. Live coverage running through the quarterfinals will air nightly on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. with taped replays running the following day at noon. The semifinals and finals will air on ESPN.
Who is missing: Roger Federer, Andy Murray and John Isner are out on the men's side. Kiki Bertens and Madison Keys are absent in the women's draw.
Historical opportunities: Rafael Nadal can win his 21st major, which would break his current tie with Federer and give him the most all-time. Serena Williams holds the Open Era record with 23 majors, but if she wins her 24th, she would tie Margaret Court for the most overall. Nadal and Williams have said they are dealing with injuries.
MEN'S PLAYERS TO WATCH
Dominic Thiem: Is he ready to take over the throne in men's tennis? After reaching the French Open final in 2018 and 2019, where he lost to the never-losing-at-Roland-Garros Nadal, he reached the Australian Open final in 2020 and lost a grueling five-setter to Novak Djokovic. Thiem then won his first major over Alexander Zverev at the U.S. Open, rallying from a two-set deficit to win 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6).
Novak Djokovic: No player has taken a bigger PR hit over the past 12 months than Djokovic, the defending champion. He hosted tennis exhibitions that did not require masks or social distancing, which led to several positive cases and canceled events. He was defaulted from the U.S. Open in the fourth round after inadvertently hitting a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball. And his complaints about having to quarantine in Australia have not gone over well with the local media. Did we mention he's No. 1 in the world, the No. 1 men's seed, the defending Australian Open champion, an eight-time winner of the event and chasing major No. 18?
Daniil Medvedev: The 24-year-old Russian has exploded onto the tennis scene the past two seasons, reaching the final of the U.S. Open in 2019 and the semifinals there in 2020. But what he did after that event was just as important, winning the 2020 ATP Tour Finals by defeating Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem — becoming the first player in history to win the tournament by beating the top three ranked players in the world.
WOMEN'S PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ashleigh Barty: The women's No. 1 seed, a Queensland, Australia, native, reached the semifinals at the Australian Open in 2020 after winning her first major at the French Open in 2019. But Barty did not play in any of the other majors last year, choosing to not travel during the pandemic. If the 24-year-old were to win her first Australian Open in this particular year, it would be a monumental triumph for her and the country. A matchup with 2020 champion Sofia Kenin looms in the semifinals.
Sofia Kenin: The top-ranked American woman was the WTA Player of the Year in 2020 after winning the Australian Open and reaching the French Open final. The 22-year-old hadn't reached a Grand Slam final until last season, but she shocked the tennis world with her 7-6 (6), 7-5 win over No. 1-seeded Barty in the Australian Open semifinals before topping Garbine Muguruza in the final. Her runner-up showing at the French Open in October capped an incredible season.
Naomi Osaka: While taking a strong stance against police brutality and showing her support of Black Lives Matter at the 2020 U.S. Open, Osaka grabbed the third major of her young career, defeating Victoria Azarenka in the final 1-6, 6-3, 6-3. Osaka won the Australian Open in 2019 in a thrilling 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 win over Petra Kvitova, but she bowed out in the third round last year. One thing to keep an eye on: A showdown with Williams could materialize in the quarterfinals.