Ten Things To Look Forward To In Tennis In 2021

Tennis lovers, like everyone else, will be glad to see the back of 2020 and will hope that, especially with mass vaccination against Coronavirus, it will finally be possible to get back to normal, or at least “mormal” (more normal), in 2021.


There is surely only one thing on most people’s wish-list for 2021 – the return to something approaching normal life as a result of mass vaccination against Coronavirus. And although the return of fans to sporting events, including tennis tournaments, is justifiably low-down on the list of priorities for the post-Coronavirus world, for sport in general and tennis in particular it cannot happen quickly enough. Unlike most live events, such as music concerts and theatrical shows, sport has shown that it can survive without a crowd or audience being physically present, as it can still be broadcast on television. Nevertheless, the wisdom of Sir Matt Busby, the former Manchester United manager, is being fully borne out. As the huge banner behind one of the goals at Old Trafford proclaims (quoting Busby), “Football without fans is nothing”. That may not be strictly true, as football, like any other sport, can still go ahead without fans, but there is also absolutely no doubt that the spectacle, the drama and the sense of occasion of any sporting event is almost immeasurably reduced by the absence of fans. So, here’s hoping that the greatest stadia in tennis – in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York – are full once again in 2021.


Even if, as is still possible, Wimbledon 2021 has to go ahead without fans, it will still be better than Wimbledon 2020, which didn’t happen at all. That was partly because the All-England Club, almost uniquely it seemed, had “pandemic insurance”, which meant that it could afford not to have Wimbledon for one year rather than going ahead either without fans, as was the case with the 2020 US Open, or with only a smattering of fans, as was the case with the 2020 French Open. Nevertheless, to go two years without any Wimbledon at all would surely be unthinkable, which means that even if Henman Hill and Centre Court are almost completely deserted, there will still be a Wimbledon in 2021.


The careers of Roger Federer and Serena Williams have often been interlinked, not least because they have often won Majors together at the same tournament in the same year. However, it is arguable that the biggest thing that they have in common now is that they are  both coming towards the end of their tennis careers, and indeed that those careers might finally end in 2021. Both these truly great players will turn 40 in 2021 (Federer in August and Williams in September) and for all their remarkable longevity it is surely almost impossible to imagine that they can win a Major in their fifth decade of existence. So, 2021 is likely to be their last best chance to win a Major, which will mean – incredibly – that there will be even more focus and pressure on them in the next 12 months than there has been for the last 20 years or so. Nevertheless, such is their remarkable staying power that the odds must surely be on at least one of them winning another Major before they finally bow out with the style they have exhibited throughout their careers.


At 34 and 33 respectively, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are both much younger than Roger Federer, which is why most tennis writers and analysts think that they will both eventually surpass Federer’s total of 20 Majors (Djokovic having already matched it, of course, at the delayed 2020 French Open). Nevertheless, just like everything else in sport, it is not a certainty. Nadal will have the first two chances to overtake Federer in the first two Majors of the year, at the Australian Open and the French Open, and in Paris in particular he will be hotly tipped to make it “21 in ’21”. However, younger men are finally coming to the fore, with Dominic Thiem having won his first Major at the 2020 US Open and Daniel Medvedev having beaten both Nadal and Djokovic en route to triumphing at the ATP Tour Finals in London, and that is without even mentioning the other upcoming male stars, such as Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev and, perhaps a little further down the line, Jannik Sinner. As a result, unlike in 2017, 2018 and 2019, it is possible that not every male Major Singles title in 2021 will be won by one of the Big Three.


It is a testament to the complete dominance on clay of Rafael Nadal that it does not seem to matter to him when the French Open is played – in 2020, he won it in the autumn, to go alongside the dozen other times that he has won it in the spring. But for everyone else, and especially all the other players, it mattered hugely. Not all of them may have worn jackets on court, as Victoria Azarenka did, but almost all of them reported that the ball was heavier and even harder to hit in the cold weather of October than in the warmth of spring. And what was undeniable was that the gorgeous, red-brick courts of Roland Garros did not look quite as golden-red under October skies as they do in springtime. So, the whole tennis world, including even Rafael Nadal, will be delighted that the French Open will be played in its usual time-slot – late May to early June – in 2021.


If the era of “The Big Three” in men’s tennis is finally coming to an end, it is surely unarguable that in women’s tennis the era of “The Big One” – i.e. Serena Williams – has already ended. Perhaps Mats Wilander put it best back in New York in the autumn, when Serena crashed out of her home Grand Slam against Victoria Azarenka in the semi-final, by saying that Serena was still “very good” but no longer “the best” women’s tennis player. Instead, there will be up to half a dozen young women (most of them significantly younger than Serena) vying to replace her at the top of the women’s game. There are what might be a women’s “Big Three” of Naomi Osaka, Iga Świątek and (subject to her regaining full fitness) Bianca Andreescu; there is also Sofia Kenin, who won one Major (the Australian Open) in 2020 and reached the final of another (the French Open); and there are also the slightly older players who have won Majors before and might yet win them again, particularly Simona Halep and Ash Barty. As a result, women’s tennis promises to be the most exciting it has ever been, with more Major contenders than ever before fighting it out in Major Finals to succeed Chrissie, the two Martinas and Serena as the dominant women’s champions who were so good that only their first name had to be used to identify them. 


Despite the recent breakthroughs in developing a vaccine against Coronavirus, everything about 2021 remains extremely uncertain, including the little matter of whether there will be a second Tokyo Olympics to go alongside the original Tokyo Olympics of 1964. Seb Coe, one of the greatest Olympians ever and the current President of World Athletics, has already stated publicly and repeatedly that if the Tokyo Olympics do not go ahead, as planned, in the summer of 2021, then they will not happen at all. And of course, even if the Games themselves go ahead, they are likely to go ahead in front of no fans at all or at best only a few thousand in stadia built for tens of thousands. If that happens, it would mean that a second Olympics in succession takes place in front of virtually no fans, after almost everyone in Rio who was not a millionaire boycotted the 2016 Olympics there in protest at what was regarded as unprecedented corruption and wastefulness in the build-up to the Games. Nevertheless, if there is a Tokyo Olympics, the tennis tournament at least promises to be memorable, especially on the men’s side of the draw, with Andy Murray bidding for a third successive Men’s Singles title, Roger Federer (and Novak Djokovic) bidding for a first ever Men’s Singles title, and the prospect of a relative unknown achieving what Tomáš Berdych did in Athens in 2004, when he defeated the hot favourite Federer and set himself on the path that would eventually take him to a Grand Slam Final (at Wimbledon in 2010) and numerous Grand Slam semi-finals.


Rare is the tennis career that appears only to be on an upward trajectory, but that is the case with Italy’s Jannik Sinner right now. In 2019, he won the NextGen Tournament in his native Italy; in 2020, he continued to rise up the rankings, reaching the last eight at Roland Garros and winning his maiden ATP Tour title in grand style at the Sofia Open, the last tournament of the most disrupted of seasons; and such are the expectations around the brilliant young Italian that he might go even further than the last eight at one of the four Majors in 2021. As has often been said already in his short career, even more impressive than Sinner’s howitzer-like forehand is his steel-like single mindedness. That was demonstrated again throughout 2020, perhaps most impressively in the last 16 at the French Open against Alex Zverev and then in the Sofia Final against Vacek Pospisil. And if he can continue to remain as unwaveringly focused on tennis as he has been throughout his short career so far, there is every chance that he will at least reach a Major semi-final at some point in the next 12 months.


Of course Sinner is not alone, as was shown repeatedly in 2020, because there are a number of Italian players, both male and female, who are making great progress: Matteo Berrettini and Lorenzo Sonego among the men; and Martina Trevisan, who matched Sinner in making the last eight in Paris, at the vanguard of a new generation of Italian women. If this trend continues, then Italy will finally begin to emerge as the tennis superpower that it has often threatened to be but never quite managed in the past. Certainly, the preponderance of Challenger and Futures events in Italy is a testament to the popularity of the sport in the country. However, if Sinner and Trevisan can continue to go deep in the Majors, the likelihood is that Italy will soon have another Major winner to go alongside the legendary Nicola Pietrangeli and more recent female champions such as Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. 


Given that the Australian Open has already been pushed back three weeks to allow for the inevitable quarantining of the world’s top players after they arrive in the country, with knock-on effects for all other tournaments at the start of the 2021 season, it is likely that the corrosive effects of Coronavirus will be felt for a long time yet. But hopefully it is not being overly optimistic to say that, new variants of the virus notwithstanding, its effect on tennis and everything else in the next 12 months should not be as all-encompassing as it was in 2020. If so, then 2021 promises to be a truly historic year, with the best of the current champions – Federer, Serena Williams, Nadal and Djokovic – playing and competing alongside the current crop of new or potential champions, including Osaka, Świątek and Sinner. It could be old versus new, or experience versus youth, for the next 12 months. And after the largely miserable year that 2020 has been for everyone, that is genuinely something to look forward to in the year ahead.

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