Men’s sports and male athletes dominate attention; twas ever thus. But anybody looking to get the most out of the 2021 Australian Open needs to shift their focus. The best stories, the most interesting characters, and the greatest chance of drama are in the women’s draw.
After years of major tournament tennis being synonymous with The Big Three™ men, it might require some effort to retune the heuristic, but it will be rewarding. The list of contenders for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup is long, diverse, and full of candidates for a fortnight-long loan of a living room “c’mon”.
Serena Williams remains the headline act, 23 years since she first stepped on court at Melbourne Park. She is playing now for history: to end her career only the fourth mother to lift a major singles trophy, to become the oldest grand slam singles champion in the Open era, and to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 grand slam titles. It would be Williams’ crowning glory, and a feat bursting with symbolism.
If Williams has not engendered universal love during her career, Ashleigh Barty has. The Queenslander is simultaneously the world No 1 in a cutthroat sport and the happy-go-lucky Vegemite kid adored in the locker room as well as the bleachers. Barty’s matches will be the most boisterous, and the bandwagon that accompanies her will be joyful and open to all-comers.
Moreover, Barty’s matches are interesting. While she can serve bombs and trade blows from the baseline, her success is underpinned by guile. No weapon in the women’s game is as deadly as Barty’s backhand slice, a shot she uses to manipulate her opponent into uncomfortable areas of the court, making them reply with unpractised strokes. Rallies unfurl like cryptic crossword clues, impenetrable at first glance but concluding with a satisfying ‘ah-ha’ moment.
While the WTA rankings have Barty in pole position, the title of the tour’s dominant force belongs to the gnomic Naomi Osaka. The Japanese star offers the strongest all-round package – technically, athletically, and mentally – reflected in her triumphing in three of the past eight slams, including most recently at Flushing Meadows. But off-court she does not subscribe to the cookie-cutter expectations of high performance athletes. She is introverted, which can come across as coy. She thinks deeply about how she communicates and often treats mundane press conferences as reflective therapy. She is increasingly finding her voice, evidenced most clearly by her powerful support for the Black Lives Matter movement during her US Open triumph. She accomplished a rare feat of drawing attention to a matter of significance and engaging with it fearlessly, all while avoiding gimmickry.
At 23 Osaka is a positive veteran in a sport where grand slam champions spring fully formed onto the circuit every season. Iga Świątek was not long 19 when she won last year’s French Open, and Sofia Kenin had only just turned 21 when her determination stunned Rod Laver Arena this time last year. The season before that was supposed to herald the dawning of the age of Bianca Andreescu but since winning the US Open as a 19-year-old, injury has denied the Canadian another grand slam appearance.
Throw in the inspiring comebacks of Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitová, the drought-breaking quests of perennial contenders Karolína Plíšková and Elina Svitolina, or the possible swansong of 40-year-old Venus Williams, and the reasons to tune in from the first serve are plentiful. Each round’s match-ups will provide a tournament’s worth of column inches.
The female influence extends off court too with the AO Inspirational Series continuing with keynote speaker Julia Gillard. Even the weather is getting in on the act with the tournament taking place during a La Niña summer in Australia.
The men’s draw pales by comparison. Roger Federer’s absence reduces the Big Three to a head-to-head between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Between them these titans have sequestered nine of the past 10 slams, and 33 of 51 dating back to 2008. Should they meet in a 10th major final, the hype will be deserved, but the road to that destination does not promise to be scenic.
A case could be made in favour of US Open champion and last year’s beaten finalist, Dominic Thiem, but his is not a compelling story, and it is slim pickings beyond. The popular Andy Murray and Juan Martín del Potro are not around. Alexander Zverev is, but shrouded in controversy.
Perhaps a better way into the men’s draw this year is through what wrestling fans might term the heels. Rather than sweat over the details before a Djokovic v Nadal decider, revel in the chaos that could be caused by someone like Daniil Medvedev, a master of hardcourts and at ease playing to the crowd as the pantomime scoundrel, or you could take another white-knuckle ride on the back of Nick Kyrgios.
Kyrgios should at least avoid the added heat under his collar of the stereotypical Australian Open scorcher. La Niña summers mean cooler, wetter conditions. There could even be the occasional interruption to play on the outside courts. Consider it extra time to pick your way through the women’s singles draw and its cast of characters.