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Our tennis man Andy Schooler looks ahead to the Australian Open which takes place at Melbourne Park from February 8-22.

What's New and What's Not?

The COVID-19 Grand Slam era reaches chapter three next week when the 2021 Australian Open gets under way.

Like its Slam predecessor, the 2020 French Open, it has been forced to change dates by the global pandemic, although at least not by five months which was the case with Roland Garros last year.

Instead play will get under way three weeks later than originally planned. It is still the Australian summer, so the potential for brutal temperatures remains high, although the first-week forecast is for the mid-to-low 20s; very manageable.

Unlike last year, the court surface is the same – Greenset having replaced Plexicushion prior to the 2020 renewal. Early indications are the courts are playing slightly faster than they did 13 months ago. It is worth punters remembering that there is only one set of ‘course form’ for the Greenset conditions, although the change of manufacturer brought only a subtle change and it certainly wasn’t enough to stop Novak Djokovic retaining his grip on the men’s title.

While the surface switch wasn’t enough to stop Djokovic, the changes thrown up by 2021 are a different kettle of fish and have presented every player with a new problem.

The Quarantine Issue

In order to play at the Australian Open, players had to travel Down Under on one of several flights chartered by the organisers. Upon arrival they were immediately forced to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days to ensure that COVID was not reintroduced into a city which is basically free of the virus. Indeed, so well have things been handled in Australia that many fans will be in the stands for this tournament.

Most players were allowed five hours a day outside their hotel room – to practise, train in the gym and eat. That was as close to normal as life got for 14 days – not exactly the regular routine of a tennis professional.

But everyone was the same boat, right, so what’s the problem?

Wrong.

An unlucky 72 travelled on flights which subsequently saw someone on board test positive for COVID-19. These players all had to ‘hard quarantine’ for the two-week period – in their hotel room 24 hours a day.

The main men’s title hopefuls avoided that plight but several leading women’s names were among those hardest hit. They included former champion Victoria Azarenka, US Open winners Bianca Andreescu and Angelique Kerber, as well as world number 12 Belinda Bencic.

The consensus is that these players will certainly be at a disadvantage, although how much is difficult to gauge.

US Open champion Dominic Thiem gave his verdict: “I think it’s clear that there’s a complete inequality of opportunity. All players are fresh out of their pre-season, they are in really good shape and have top fitness. If you can’t leave your room for 14 days, it doesn’t matter how much fitness you do in the room, a lot of it just goes away.”

Andy Murray’s strength and conditioning coach Matt Little went further describing the hard quarantiners’ situation as a “disaster”.

“They’ll get most things from a tennis and tactical perspective back quickly”, he told Metro, “but it’s the body’s exposure to this explosive work after a two-week period of enforced rest that’s actually really quite dangerous for them.”
And rising WTA star Marta Kostyuk admitted that when she finally got out of her room her “primary aim” was to “avoid injuries”.

Again, punters will need to decide whether backing one of these players is worth the risk.

Who's Missing?

At least those players have made it to Australia. Several didn’t, most notably Roger Federer, who is still recovering from knee surgery last June.

Cristian Garin and John Isner, both of whom would have been seeded, are also missing from the men’s field, as is British number two Kyle Edmund.

On the women’s side, top-10 star Kiki Bertens leads the absentees as she recovers from Achilles surgery. Americans Madison Keys and Amanda Anisimova were both ruled out after testing positive for COVID-19.

Are There any Form Lines?

Form lines are thin on the ground. For most players, this week’s warm-up tournaments will be their first of the season.

There were actually ATP and WTA tournaments in early January, prior to the flights to Australia, but most of the top players didn’t play.

A notable one who did was Aryna Sabalenka, who won the WTA event in Abu Dhabi to make it 15 straight wins following her strong end to 2020.

On the men’s side, Matteo Berrettini was the only top-10 player in action and he flopped in Antalya where Alex de Minaur won the title. In Delray Beach, Hubert Hurkacz picked up the trophy.

Who's Worth Backing?

So, let’s pick out some players with the ability to contend, ranging from some of the leading names to some big-priced outsiders.

The draw will take place on Thursday and that will doubtless see markets amended but, for now, here are four from each singles draw to consider…

Novak Djokovic

Australian Open 2021 Winner

5/4

Yes, I know. Not an original choice. But it feels to wrong not to mention a player who has dominated this tournament for the past decade, winning it a record eight times between 2008 and 2020. The world number one insists a recent hand blistering problem won’t be an issue but you’ll need to judge for yourself how much the recent quarantine process will have damaged his chances. It may put you off someone who is such a short price.

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Nick Kyrgios

Australian Open 2021 Winner

The Australian was once regularly talked about as a Grand Slam champion in waiting. But he’s still to go beyond the quarter-finals at a major in a career which has been more defined by his on-court behaviour and outspoken views off it. Perhaps the current situation will help – Kyrgios has been spared the rigorous quarantine process and says he is “mentally completely refreshed”. Physically, the problem is he’s not played competitively since February. If that rust can be shaken off this week and in the early rounds, just maybe this could be Kyrgios’ time.

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Jannik Sinner

Australian Open 2021 Winner

Sinner finds himself in a similar position to a teenage Kyrgios – tipped by many to be a future world number one. The Italian has plenty of talent and his rise up the rankings has come at a pretty remarkable pace. He’s already up to 36th in the ATP list and ended 2020 by claiming his first ATP title. His game has few weaknesses and the 19-year-old will now look to transfer that success to Grand Slam level. Pushed Rafael Nadal as hard as anyone at the French Open so shouldn’t be too far away.

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Gael Monfils

Australian Open 2021 Winner

Those seeking a really big price could do worse than look at Monfils, a player whose talent has never been in question but whose body has often let him down. Given the strain tennis places on him, Monfils is usually best backed towards the start of a season – six of his 10 ATP titles have been won in either January or February. He’s often blasted out of the blocks, reaching the Doha final in the opening week of the season on four occasions. That bodes well for a tournament which looks likely to provide plenty of upsets.

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Aryna Sabalenka

Australian Open 2021 Winner

9/1

Taking in the back end of 2020, Sabalenka is the undoubted form horse on the women’s side. She finished last season with titles in Ostrava and Linz and began 2021 with victory in Abu Dhabi. Subsequently the Belarusian arrives in Australia on a 15-match winning streak. Her powerful hitting can cause problems for any player but the issue in the past has been keeping the errors down on a consistent basis. If she manages to do that, her price will look big

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Serena Williams

Australian Open 2021 Winner

Again, not someone who is going under the radar. In fact, the American is bound to be very much in the spotlight as she, once again, chases Grand Slam singles title number 24 – one which would equal Margaret Court’s all-time record. It’s now a full four years since her last success at this level – four finals since have all brought defeat – but the big thing in her favour here is that she has a long track record of winning titles on the back of little match practice. Time and again, Williams has arrived at major tournaments without matches under her belt but she’s still been able to find her best tennis. Few in the field can say that.

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Maria Sakkari

Australian Open 2021 Winner

2020 was a tough year for all but, in tennis terms, it went pretty well for the Greek. Sakkari made the last 16 in Melbourne, a feat she would replicate at the US Open. In a truncated campaign, she also reached two semi-finals on the WTA tour and has already played in another this season. She’s been on an upward trajectory for a while and looks a decent price given all the uncertainly surrounding this tournament and some of its top names.

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Johanna Konta

Australian Open 2021 Winner

Unlike Sakkari, 2020 did not go well for Konta, who won just a single match across the three Grand Slam tournaments. But it should be remembered that she made two quarter-finals and one semi-final in 2019, a year which wasn’t disrupted in an unprecedented way. In the off-season, the Briton reunited with the coach who was alongside her during that 2019 campaign, Dimitri Zavialoff, and having hit the reset button, it would not be a huge surprise to see her start the year well. Konta made the semis here in 2016 and the quarters 12 months later. Born and raised in Australia, she’s very much at home at this event and definitely has the potential to go well at a big price.

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Odds are correct at the time of posting

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