January 3, 2021

A Grand, If Curious, Kick-Off

Well, guys, we've made it. After the long slog that was 2020, we're finally in the New Year, and while things are far from completely back to normal, we're starting to see the gears turn again.

There may not be a traditional lead-up to the Australian Open -- there's no action in Brisbane and the qualifying tournaments will be held, weirdly, in Dubai -- but after much speculation and concern, the first Grand Slam of the year is hopefully within sight, albeit a little further away than ususual. And we're just a few days away from the first matches of this strange and shifted season.

The women kick off their action in Abu Dhabi, with last year's Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin and world #5 Elina Svitolina leading the field. It will certainly be interesting to see if my 2020 Player of the Year can come out of the gates hot, but there will be plenty of competition looking to halt her momentum. Not least of whom is Aryna Sabalenkra, riding a nine-match win streak into the new year. But there's also Karolina Pliskova, who honestly had a pretty disappointing season last year, and comes into 2021 with a new start and a new coach.

There's plenty of other talent in the field, too. Surprise French Open semifinalist Nadia Podoroska will be back in action, with a spotlight on her for the first time. And Maria Sakkari, too, a smidge off her career high ranking, but coming off a year where she bagged wins over Svitolina and Serena Williams to boot. Any of these ladies could make a play to start the year off on the right foot.

The men, meanwhile, will split their action in two very different parts of the world. Matteo Berrettini, David Goffin, and Fabio Fognini take the top seeds in Antalya, Turkey, an event moved up from June and onto hard courts, and could find themselves vulnerable to early upsets -- Fognini, for one, has only won one match since last year's Australian Open.

Instead I'd keep an eye out for Jannik Sinner, fresh off his first career title in Sofia -- the nineteen year old seems to be far outplaying his #36 ranking. Even one-time Roland Garros semifinalist Marco Cecchinato, who is trying to climb his way back into the top tiers of the sport. His specialty may be clay, but he might just be able to surprise us with a little luck.

A little closer to [my] home, there's more action going on in Delray Beach, another tournament that's moved up in the calendar. Three former titlists will hit the courts in Florida to try to make lightning strike again: Reilly Opelka, who snuck in a win here last year, before the season shut down; Frances Tiafoe, who won his only ATP crown here in 2018 but managed a Challenger win in Parma near the end of last season; and 2016 champ Sam Querrey, trying to rebound after getting fined for breaking quarantine protocol at the St. Petersburg Open last fall.

Delray will also mark the return of John Isner, who suffered some big defeats to cap off his 2020 season and ended the year at his lowest ranking since 2016. That might get him halfway to the reckoning I called for at the start of last year, but these days he certainly seems to be making more headlines for his controversial mask comments and political views than for his performance on court.

On the other hand, in what's been quite a reversal for me, I've suddenly found myself rooting hard for Andy Murray, who's taking a wildcard in Florida. Not sure if it's his pro-BLM stance or just the desire to see a great comeback, but I'd actually be more than happy to see him walk away with a title here.

Of course, it's going to be interesting to see how any of these events play out, as there is still so much strange and unusual about how we live these days. But there is light at the end of this tunnel, and hopefully this kick-off will just be the first rays of sunshine to peak through.

After all, it's 2021 now, and things can only get better from here!

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