In so many ways, this year’s Australian Open could be the most momentous in its 116-year history.
From the precedent it could set for world sporting events to the sheer calibre of records on offer for some of its participants, there are storylines everywhere you look at the new COVID-safe Melbourne Park precinct.
Ahead of the events start of Monday, here are the five storylines that will likely dominate the next two weeks.
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RAFA v ROGER
Barring any change to the French Open, it seems all but certain Rafael Nadal will at least add a 21st grand slam singles title to his resumé, breaking the 20-all deadlock with fellow great Roger Federer.
It’s going to be intriguing to see Nadal deal with the weight of history that even he hasn’t faced before – the prospect of surpassing Federer seemed all but impossible back when the Swiss was at his peak, but it is as tangible now as it has ever been.
We’ve seen Serena Williams (more on her later) lose her last four slam finals as she’s grappled with potentially equalling Margaret Court’s record 24 grand slam singles titles, so it’s clear that the greats aren’t immune to pressure.
With Nadal having just the one Australian Open title, 12 years ago via a win against none other than Federer, winning his second and breaking the tie would prove yet another reason why the Spaniard deserves to be equal to, or maybe even better than the Fed Express when both hang up the racquets.
Ironically enough, in a slam where Federer won’t be present for the first time in his career, this part of he and Nadal’s rivalry could prove one of the most important chapters yet.
One of sports greatest ever rivalries continues to develop (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / POOL / AFP).Source: AFP
ASH BARTY’S DREAM RUN
We were deprived of a potential finals preview when Serena Williams pulled out of her lead-up match against Ash Barty, but the Aussie has perhaps the best opportunity yet to become the first home hope to win the Australian Open singles title in 43 years.
Virtually all of Barty’s main competitors for the title are in the opposite half of the draw, although a tantalising confrontation with 2020 champion and conqueror Sofia Kenin looms in the semi-finals if all goes to script.
The world number one hasn’t played a lot of competitive tennis in the past year but looks to have brushed off any cobwebs via the lead-in tournament.
If you thought the ‘Barty Party’ headlines were annoying before, look out if she takes home the trophy in 2021.
Ashleigh Barty will be looking to win her second grand slam singles title and her first since the 2019 French Open (AP Photo/Christophe Ena).Source: Supplied
ALL EYES ON NICK
Whether he seeks out the spotlight or not, Nick Kyrgios almost always inevitably finds himself on centre stage, no more so than at his home slam.
The former world No.13 enters this year’s event unseeded and has been drawn to face a qualifier in the first round, potentially top-30 player Ugo Humbert in the second and then a mouth-watering clash with world No.3 Dominic Thiem in the third round.
As is often the case with Kyrgios, there’s more concern about him actually making it to round three than there is him giving Thiem a red-hot run for his money.
A knee complaint looked to trouble him in his lead-in matches but he insists it’s nothing he didn’t expect after a year out of the game.
It’ll be interesting to see how Kyrgios manages with the possibility of heavily reduced crowds.
Kyrgios throws his racquet into stands!
SERENA’S BID TO REVERSE THE CURSE
Serena will turn 40 this year and time is running out for the former world number one to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 grand slam singles titles.
Since winning her 23rd slam at the Australian Open in 2017, Williams appears to have felt the weight of history bearing down on her, losing four straight slam finals – her record in those finals before her recent losing streak was a staggering 23-6.
Williams still has the outcome of the match on her racquet in virtually every game she plays and simply cannot be ruled out of any slam given her ability.
The Australian Open is her equal-most successful major alongside Wimbledon, with seven of her titles coming at Rod Laver Arena.
Like Nadal on the men’s side of the draw, Williams’ bid at history looms as one of the final tests for a player that has met nearly every challenge faced over a glittering career so far.
Should Williams and Nadal prevail, this year’s Australian Open could be remembered as one of the most monumental in the sport’s history.
Serena Williams’ last grand slam title came at the 2017 Australian Open (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images).Source: Getty Images
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19
This year’s Australian Open could not be more delicately poised and we’ve seen that in the lead-up.
From the gargantuan operation to bring players into the country, to the uproar from a vocal minority about quarantine conditions, criticism from much of the public for going ahead with the event and most recently the confirmed COVID-19 case in a hotel quarantine worker, there has never been a more turbulent and pothole-laden road to the event than there has been in 2021.
Like so many other sports, seeing a ‘COVID-normal’ version will be surreal and how the 72 players who were put into hard lockdown fare once the main event starts will be fascinating.
No line judges is one of the main changes we’ve seen so far and it remains baffling to watch. Melbourne Park has been transformed into a COVID-safe venue with zones, contactless ticketing and more, while the entire feel around the event is different to any other year.
Any positive COVID test during the Australian Open could derail the entire train depending on the circumstances, an added element of intrigue around an event that has the eyes of the sporting world watching on intently.