In these unprecedented times where the sporting world is slowly adjusting to cope with more upheaval as we reach the climax of 2020, the word to describe this year would be “bedlam.” It is easy to forget that tennis, like other sports, paused for nearly six months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic which momentarily stopped everything. But tennis did return, albeit without any of its normalcy–a common experience in 2020. And now that the upcoming schedule for the first seven weeks of next season has been formalized, there will be tennis in 2021.
Time away from the sport became alluring for some and we saw it with the surprise retirement of Germany’s Julia Goerges at only 33. The paradigm in fact begun in August when Bob and Mike Bryan–the greatest doubles pairing in tennis–called time on their careers. The American twin brothers had planned for a memorable swansong at the start of the year, oscillating across continents and playing in each of the four Grand Slams. But COVID-19 struck and robbed them of a fitting farewell. In spite of tennis’ resumption, the duo did not want their ending to be of a graveyard silence on the hard courts of New York.
Still, in these interesting times, there is a lot to be hopeful about as we gear towards the 2021 season. Men’s tennis will continue to retain its aura with the revelation that 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer is determined to play some part next season. Having rested his 39-year-old knees for nearly a year, the legendary Swiss is planning to return at the Australian Open at the start of February. Rafael Nadal, also on 20 Majors, will be an ever-present. Then there is Novak Djokovic, the World No.1, the man who could exceed even these two.
Djokovic Eyes Federer’s Record of Most Weeks at No.1
Novak Djokovic spent his teenage years mastering how to beat Federer and Nadal on a consistent basis. People mistakenly confused his self-confidence to sheer arrogance. And Djokovic’s admission in the past that the two players only served to make him a better player has been largely understated. The duopoly of Federer and Nadal died on Djokovic’s strings nearly a decade ago when he stretched himself to his absolute limits and put together one of the greatest seasons in tennis in 2011.
The Serbian star is on course to break two long-standing records in men’s tennis: the most weeks at No.1 and the most Grand Slams. The former is now in sight, with Djokovic poised to end Federer’s record of most weeks at No.1 in March. Djokovic sits second at 300 weeks on the leaderboard behind Federer, who is on 310 and it is hard to fathom anyone who will catch him once he gets there.
In an interview earlier this year, Djokovic said, “I’m always very confident in myself. I believe I can win the most Slams and break the record for longest No.1. Those are definitely my clear goals.”
A Record-Extending 9th Australian Open Beckons
Even with a delayed start to next year’s Australian Open, one name will stand out from the chasing pack on the list of favorites. Just like a homing pigeon, the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup has found itself a home in Djokovic’s hands and it would take a monumental effort to wrestle that crown from him.
To put things into perspective, he has won as many championships down under as matches lost (75-8), and he has never lost a final there.
Will Novak Djokovic Be The Man To Beat After Melbourne?
It is trivial to suggest such an occurrence considering we did not play anything remotely close to a perfect calendar in 2020. Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II, six months were taken off the calendar, and the makeshift schedule was as tortuous as it was confusing. However, Djokovic would still end the year at No.1 for the sixth time in his career, tying Pete Sampras in the process.
Melbourne Park will remain Djokovic’s castle and he is likely to clinch a ninth title next February. His two-year reign at Wimbledon will face a potential test against his rivals, the returning Federer and Nadal. Djokovic, though, has beaten the former in all three previous finals at SW19 and Nadal’s name is not as daunting on the grass as it is on clay. With Andy Murray’s glory days appearing all over, the Serbian could be vulnerable to an upset bid from a big server. Someone like Kevin Anderson (who came mighty close in 2015), or Sam Querrey, who actually stunned him in 2016.
However, those aforementioned players are a shadow of their former selves, narrowing down the list to a certain Milos Raonic. The Canadian was in impressive form following the tour’s restart in August, and despite playing with distinction at the lawns of the All England Club, he is 0-11 against Djokovic in their head-to-head. In a best of five, the World No.1’s grass court skills will wear him down.
Bar Federer, the usual suspects will be the likes of Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. None of these players have fared decently at Wimbledon down the years, increasing Djokovic’s chances of a successful title defense.
A return to New York for the US Open will be on the cards and a chance to atone for his infamous disqualification.
There is of course the French Open set to take place in May, but due to ever-changing coronavirus conditions the schedule is subject to change. The clay Slam is the one Slam where Novak Djokovic will be an underdog. There are no prizes for guessing who the unanimous favorite is, but having already won Roland Garros before, it makes sense that he is putting his eggs in a different basket–one where they will hatch.
Main Photo from Getty.