Column: Serena Williams could be set to make history in unpredictable Australian Open
For two weeks, mattresses became backboards and hotel rooms became private gyms. Creativity and perseverance off the court unexpectedly became important for the 72 Australian Open-bound tennis players who were plunged into strict quarantine after people on their charter flights tested positive for the coronavirus.
Some whined about getting subpar meals but others expressed appropriate gratitude for being able to play tennis in a pandemic-muddled world. They made the best of uncomfortable circumstances, including emerging from quarantine only to lose a day of a warmup event when a hotel worker’s positive test led to additional testing for about 160 people. With everyone cleared, the year’s first Grand Slam event — delayed by three weeks by safety protocols — is on track to begin Monday in Australia.
About 30,000 fans will be admitted to Melbourne Park each day, a welcome change from the empty stands at the U.S. Open and small crowds allowed to attend the French Open. Electronic line-calling will replace human judges. “It’s going to be a Grand Slam like we’ve never, ever seen before,” said Lindsay Davenport, who will provide commentary for the Tennis Channel from the U.S.
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World No. 1 Novak Djokovic is favored to repeat as the men’s champion, and there’s reason on top of sentiment to believe Serena Williams can tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. Williams has been stuck at 23 since she won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant with her daughter, having lost the four finals she reached since her return. However, she looked quick and strong during a warmup tournament last week before withdrawing because of a shoulder problem. Naomi Osaka, winner of the 2020 U.S. Open and 2019 Australian Open titles, also pulled out of a preparatory event but said it was only out of caution for the coming weeks.
Beyond the sharpness of Djokovic, the injury-induced absence of Roger Federer and the impressive depth of the women’s field, little is certain competitively. Even less is certain about the impact of potential disruptions related to COVID-19.
“You’ve got to throw everything to the wind and wake up every morning and be ready to go with whatever is going to happen,” said Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion who will comment on matches for ESPN from the U.S. “One thing for sure: It will be as equal a playing field as it’s ever been because nobody’s peaked. Nobody can say they’re playing their best tennis. The lower-ranked players, this is a time for upsets.”
Australia’s Ash Barty is the women’s top-seeded player, followed by Simona Halep, Osaka and defending champion Sofia Kenin of the U.S. Williams is seeded No. 10 and has a tough draw, with seven Grand Slam champions — four of them formerly ranked No. 1 in the world — in her half.
Despite that, it would be foolish to write her off. “I’ve watched Naomi. I’ve watched Kenin. I’ve watched most of these players. Simona. And nobody’s in top form yet,” Evert said during a Zoom call. “For Serena to sneak in there and take this title wouldn’t surprise me whatsoever.”
Davenport, a three-time Slam singles winner, also isn’t counting out Williams. “She’s been the greatest player we’ve ever seen. Does she need to get to 24, 25, to make everyone believe that? I don’t think so,” Davenport said. “Margaret Court won a number of Australian Opens with a 32-player draw, 90% of the players being Australian. A little bit of an unfair comparison.
“It’s on her mind, on everyone’s mind when she goes out there to play. I say she ties it this year. I’m not sure if she breaks it. Two is a lot to win in one year.”
Seven-time Grand Slam singles winner John McEnroe suggested Williams — who will be 40 this year — might draw inspiration from elite athletes such as 43-year-old Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady and 36-year-old Lakers star LeBron James, though McEnroe acknowledged there’s a difference between team and individual sports.
“I think a lot of it depends on is she fitter or quicker than she was six months ago? That would be a huge thing if that was the case,” McEnroe said. “That would be quite helpful because obviously these girls now … they’re going to want to wear her down if they could and get her on the run as much as possible, so that’s a key thing.
“As long as she’s playing, to me, I would pretty much pick her almost anytime.”
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Djokovic won his eighth Australian Open title last year. He has won 17 Slam singles championships, three behind the 20 earned by Federer and No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal. Djokovic lost a chance at another title last year when he was defaulted out of the U.S. Open in the fourth round for recklessly hitting a ball that struck a lineswoman. With Djokovic out of the way and Federer and Nadal having skipped the event, Dominic Thiem of Austria broke the Big Three’s stranglehold to win his first Slam event.
Djokovic has a tough draw, offering hope to No. 3 seed Thiem, No. 4 Daniil Medvedev of Russia, No. 5 Stefan Tsitsipas of Greece and No. 6 Alexander Zverev of Germany. “I’d like to see a guy like Medvedev. He’s like a chess master to me,” McEnroe said. “He’s basically my favorite guy to watch now because he plays a little old school. He’s strategizing. He’s thinking ahead. These are the type of guys that we need and that we’re going to be seeing.
“Novak and Rafa are going to be around a couple more years and they’re going to be tough to beat. Djokovic looks amazing and Nadal, they both look incredible still. These [other] guys are getting closer but ultimately they’ve got to believe that.”
In the end, the best serve or most ferocious forehand might not determine who wins this unusual Slam. “It’s going to demand a lot of patience and a lot of flexibility,” Evert said, “and who is going to really adjust and adapt the best under those precarious circumstances.”
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