February 7, 2021

Australian Open 2021 Preview: Round by Round

Happy Australian Open Eve, everyone!

And as I've said ahead of any major-small-m event over the last several months, it's hard to believe we've finally made it.

Of course, a lot of questions still hang over this year's first Major-big-M, from how players will fare coming straight from a week of hard-hitting tune-up events, to what 30,000 people in the stands will look like post-lockdown, to what happens if someone else tests positive. But while we've already had some disruptions, things have so far generally progressed as well as we could have hoped. So maybe we might just come out of this in one piece.

Here's hoping so anyway.

And this year, I'm going to highlight what might be some of the most exciting matches we'll see in the first round ... and potential match-ups that could make for some real required viewing later down the line.

Of course, there's no telling whether these battles will truly come to be -- if my predictive skills from last year continue, most likely won't -- and I might highlight potential third rounds that completely obviate one of my fourth round picks.

I'm not going to commit myself to choosing a particular number of matches per round -- after all, while there can only possibly be one final pairing, there may be several I'd love to see. And while there will always be a slew of good fights in the middle rounds, I'll probably have trouble picking them out now. I promise not to go entirely by the seedings, but in some cases it will be nearly impossible to avoid. As with everything these days, it's all just a grand experiment.

So let's see how this goes, shall we?



As is often the case, the women's draw is wide open this year, and while there are certainly favorites, there's a lot of opportunity to shake things up a bit.

First Round

Elena Rybakina (17) vs. Vera Zvonareva: The 21-year-old Kazakh was one of the hottest players on tour at the start of last year, making the final at four of the first five tournaments she played, taking no time off in between. She slowed down a bit after the lockdown, and did lose her first match in the Grampians draw this year, so she could be vulnerable against the two-time Major finalist. Zvonareva made the third round at the Yarra Valley Classic, pushing former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova to three sets. This could be a chance for the veteran to make a big statement.

Elise Mertens (18) vs. Leylah Fernandez: Mertens is a sleeper at any event she plays, quietly making the quarters at the U.S. Open last year and taking the title at the Gippsland event this past week, beating Elina Svitolina on the way. A semifinalist in Melbourne back in 2018, she's more than comfortable on this court. But Fernandez is a rising star in this sport, with a win over Belinda Bencic and a couple versus Sloane Stephens in the past year. It's a shame one of these ladies has to lose early, but it sure will be fun to see who wins.

Karolina Muchova (25) vs. Jelena Ostapenko: The seeded Czech had a strong season in 2019, winning a title in Seoul, making the final in Prague, and reaching the quarters at Wimbledon. She was doing well at the Gippsland event too, but pulled out of her quarterfinal match with an injury. Hopefully she's recovered in time to make this one a match. After all, Ostapenko, who struggled since her breakthrough at the French four years ago, finally seems to have her game back -- she won her first matches at Roland Garros since that title run last fall, beating Karolina Pliskova, and took a set off Elina Svitolina in the Gippsland third round. If these ladies are at the top of their games, it could set the tone for a solid season.

Ons Jabeur (27) vs. Andrea Petkovic: Jabeur had her breakthrough here last year when she reached the quarters with wins over Johanna Konta, Caroline Garcia, Qiang Wang, and Caroline Wozniacki. She's now at a career-high ranking, but obviously has a lot of points to defend. Petkovic meanwhile is far from the top of her game -- she made the quarters at three Majors way back in 2011 -- but always a strong force. She may not prove to be a roadblock for Jabeur, but she'll certainly put on a good match for us.

Second Round

Bianca Andreescu (8) vs. Tsvetana Pironkova: This is the first time we've seen the 2019 U.S. Open champ in action in more than a year -- she pulled out of the Grampians draw last minute to focus on the Open. Meanwhile, Pironkova has been grinding away in her comeback, stunningly making the quarters in New York last year and battling through qualies for this event. She beat an inexplicably seeded Donna Vekic at the Yarra Valley Classic too, and might just be ready to take advantage of any holes in Andreescu's game. After all, the Canadian's rise up the rankings was swift and dizzying, and there's no proof yet she has staying power.

Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Kaia Kanepi: Not long ago I would've thought this would be a walk in the park for the defending champion, but the veteran Kanepi had a major resurgence this past week in the Gippsland draw. After ending Aryna Sabalenka's red hot win streak, she went on to defeat Ekaterina Alexandrova to make her first final since 2013. And she's had success at Slams in the past, reaching the quarters of every one but the Australian twice. I'm not calling for the upset just yet, but this one could be more of a fight than we expect.

Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Coco Gauff: No one wants to see the sixteen-year-old American in their section of the draw, especially not so early. Gauff has marked some of her biggest wins on the biggest stages, taking out Venus Williams, Johanna Konta, and of course Naomi Osaka here last year. She's not Kryptonite, though -- she lost to world #371 Katie Boulter this week at the Gippsland event -- so the on-paper favorite should take solace. Svitolina, after all, has been a staple in the top ten for four years, and while she's picked up more than a dozen trophies, including ones at the year-end championships and at Premier events like Rome, she's yet to even make the final of a Major. Surviving this test could be crucial to changing that now.

Third Round

Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Ekaterina Alexandrova (29): I had my doubts about how Barty would do when she took the court again after her nearly one-year absence, but she surprised me with a title at the Yarra Valley Classic, beating Garbiñe Muguruza in the final. But she could really be tested by the talented Russian ranked well below her ability. Alexandrova picked up her first career trophy a year ago in Shenzhen, beating Qiang Wang, Elena Rybakina, and Garbiñe Muguruza on the way. While she hasn't had a real breakthrough at the Majors, she did beat Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open last year, and this past week stunned both Iga Swiatek and Simona Halep in the Gippsland draw. If they both make it this far, she could give the top seed a run for her money here too.

Victoria Azarenka (12) vs. Maria Sakkari (20): These two both pulled off something last year that few women have -- they each beat Serena Williams, Sakkari in the upset of her career at the Western & Southern and Vika in her comeback capstone in the U.S. Open semis. They might have met each other in the Grampians semis, but Azarenka withdrew ahead of the Open. Sakkari, meanwhile, lost a tight match to Anett Kontaveit to miss out on the final, but perhaps that will give her a little extra rest as she looks for a big result at a Major. And I have a feeling this potential match-up could be a good one.

Johanna Konta (13) vs. Jennifer Brady (22): The 25-year-old American may be the on-paper underdog here, but she's on a bit of a roll. After breaking through with her very first title in Lexington last year and reaching the semis in New York, she made it to the semis in the Grampians draw. Konta, meanwhile, who made the quarters of three Majors in 2019 -- plus the semis in Paris, has been a little more quiet since lockdown ended, this week gettin upset by Irina-Camelia Begu in the Gippsland third round. I wouldn't be surprised now to see an upset again.

Fourth Round

Naomi Osaka (3) vs. Garbiñe Muguruza (14): It's easy to have missed it, but the third seed essentially hasn't lost a match since February -- she withdrew from the "Cincy" final before her impactful run to the title in New York and was on point throughout her Gippsland campaign, pulling out again to make sure she was in form for the Open. Muguruza, meanwhile, was on fire at the Yarra Valley Classic, losing just ten games before the final, though she did eventually drop in that event's final. Weirdly, these two top stars have never faced each other before, and if they both make it to this round, you can bet it will be a battle. And the winner could really make her case for taking home the title.

Aryna Sabalenka (7) vs. Serena Williams (10): Don't adjust your screens -- that's not a typo. Sabalenka is, in fact, ranked and seeded higher than Serena. And for good reason -- the often steaky player put together a fifteen-match win streak before losing her opening round at the Gippsland event. Serena, meanwhile, had been looking solid before pulling out of the Yarra Valley semis with a shoulder injury. Strangely, these two have never met, but I imaging if they both make it this far -- which is not a given, Sabalenka could face talented Grampians finalist Ann Li in the third round -- we could see some heavy hitting and masterful points. And with a spot in the quarters on the line, they're going to want to bring it.


Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Nadia Podoroska: As mentioned above Svitolina is still trying for that big breakthrough at a Major, and she may have to face a rematch of last year's French quarterfinal to do it. Of course the still-unseeded Podoroska would likely have to pull off a couple of big upsets to do it -- potentialy Sofia Kenin in the third round, Jennifer Brady or Johanna Konta a round later -- but she's shown her Cinderella run at Roland Garros was no fluke. This past week at the Yarra Valley Classic, she stunned Petra Kvitova and very nearly took out former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova in the quarters. A lot of stars would have to align to make this one happen, but I'd love to see it come true.

Shelby Rogers vs. Danielle Collins: This one might be an even harder sell, but these hard-hitting Americans have pulled off more than a few big wins in the past. Rogers, of course, stunned Serena Williams in Lexington last year and then went on to beat Petra Kvitova to make the U.S. Open quarters. Collins, meanwhile, a semifinalist here in 2019, beat Ons Jabeur and Garbiñe Muguruza on her way to the final eight at the French and this past week got the better of Karolina Pliskova -- and nearly Serena -- at the Yarra Valley Classic. They've got plenty of challenges to make this match-up a reality -- Collins should get a rematch with Pliskova in the second round -- but both have proven they can pull off upsets under pressure.


Simona Halep (2) vs. Naomi Osaka (3): Both these ladies put together impressive win streaks at the end of last year, Halep on the European clay and Osaka on the American hardcourts, and while neither may have the top seed in Melbourne, it sure feels like either one could be a favorite for the title. There will be challenges, of course -- Halep may face a rematch of her rematch against Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, while Osaka as mentioned above has some tough matches early. But if they can get past those threats, they're in a good position to give us the match so many are hoping for.

Petra Kvitova (9) vs. Iga Swiatek (15): In a parallel universe, things don't go quite as planned for the top seeds -- Swiatek keeps her streak alive versus Halep and Kvitova avenges her loss to Osaka in the final here two years ago. In that world we get the first ever meeting between two fan favorites, with the two-time Wimbledon champ taking on the most recently minted Major champion for a spot in the final. It's hard to say who I'd be rooting for in that scenario, but I do know it'd be an amazing match.


Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Garbiñe Muguruza (14): The whole world loves a rematch and this year the draws worked out so that if we were to see last year's finalists play each other again at the Australian Open, it would have to be in the title match. Of course, Muguruza did just get revenge over Kenin in the Yarra Valley Classic last week, so there's reason to believe she might have figured out the key to what eluded her last time. But the American's run to the final in Paris -- especially after that drubbing in Rome -- proves you can never count her out.

Serena Williams (10) vs. Victoria Azarenka (12): No Australian Open preview would be complete without pointing out again that Serena is still looking for that elusive, record-breaking 24th Grand Slam title. And if she's going to get a chance to win it, I'd love to see her face off against Victoria Azarenka. The Belorusian's comeback last year was cemented, after all, by her win over Serena in the U.S. Open semis, the first time she ever beat her friend and long-time rival at a Major. Could she do it again? Well this is the site of her two Slam trophies, so there's no better venue for her. Whatever the case, if both these ladies make it this far, you should get ready for some fireworks.


It was way harder to wade through the men's draw without getting too duplicative since, as we know, the game has been so dominated by a handful of guys for so many years. And, as it turns out, the draws mostly worked to the advantage of the top seeds -- and not just those who've taken home the big trophies before. But that's not to say there isn't room for some surprises, and maybe just a little bit of hope that some underdogs can sneak through.

First Round

Denis Shapovalov (11) vs. Jannik Sinner: Well, now, this just isn't fair. Nineteen-year-old Sinner, a quarterfinalist at the French Open last year, just missed being seeded, but after his first career title in Sofia is just a stone's throw out of seeding territory and is coming off his first title in Sofia last year and another at the Great Ocean Road Open last week, that ranking is rising and fast. Shapovalov, who broke into the top ten after his own run to the quarters at the U.S. Open plus a semi showing in Rome, is weirdly at 21 years of age the elder statesman of this pairing, but went oh-for-two in ATP Cup action. Still, he's a strong hitter and may not let lack of momentum get him down. And as much as I'd like to see both these guys go far, whoever comes out on top may set the stage for a big event ahead.

Pablo Carreño Busta (15) vs. Kei Nishikori: PCB has had a solid couple of months, backing up his asterisk of a win over Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open with a stunning upset of Denis Shapovalov and a run to the quarterfinals in Paris. He also helped Spain to the semis at the ATP Cup, eventually losing to Fabio Fognini in three sets. For his efforts he'll face off against an on-the-mend Nishikori, a finalist in New York what seems like ages ago. The now-veteran man from Japan has had a more difficult time with this comeback, but nevertheless could cause some surprises against the seeded favorite. And it feels like this is as good a place as any for him to stage an upset.

Matteo Berrettini (9) vs. Kevin Anderson: I admit I have been skeptical about the popular Italian's spot in the top ten amid the ranking freeze, but I am happy to say he's starting to win me over. He pulled off upsets over Gael Monfils and Dominic Thiem at the ATP Cup, leading Italy to the final. But he'll still be challenged by the two-time Major finalist, who's trying to battle back from multiple right knee surgeries. Anderson's had some success, too, beating Daniil Medvedev last year in Vienna and Feliciano Lopez this past week at the Great Ocean Road Open. If Berrettini's level slips even a little, it could be a chance for the South African to shine.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Jeremy Chardy: Okay, Djokovic is going to win this match. He has a 13-0 record against Chardy, won his last fourteen rounds at the Australian Open, and hasn't dropped a first match at a Major since 2006. But let's give a moment of respect to what Chardy's done already this year. The former top-25 player -- and a doubles finalist at the French Open in 2019 -- he went 2-5 last year, capped by a heartbreaking loss to world #170 Jurij Rodionov in a four-and-a-half-plus hour first round at the French. But he's been on a bit of a roll in 2021, making the semis in Antalya and notching wins over Marin Cilic and Taylor Fritz on his way to the Murray River Open semis. It's a shame he probably won't be able to keep his streak alive in Melbourne, but it'll be fun to see him try.

Frances Tiafoe vs. Stefano Travaglia: You know Tiafoe is one of my favorites to pick up the tennis mantle for the next generation, and he had moments late last year when he seemed ready to do it, winning a Challengers title in Parma and making the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Unfortunately, though, he opens his campaign at the Open against the Great Ocean Road Open finalist, who beat Alexander Bublik and Hubert Hurkacz on the way. Travaglia may have historically had his best results on clay, but his performance this past week suggests that's changing. The winner of this match, might not go much farther -- he'll likely face Novak Djokovic next -- but a solid performance will nevertheless put him in good stead the rest of the year.

Second Round

Milos Raonic (14) vs. Corentin Moutet: Young Moutet may be ranked at a pretty mediocre #80 right now, but he seems pretty primed for a breakout soon. This past week at the Murray River Open he scored wins over Frances Tiafoe and second seed Grigor Dimitrov on his run to the semis. Raonic, meanwhile, seemed to be back on the rise for much of last season, making the quarters in Melbourne and the final at the "Cincinnati" Masters. He did go one-and-one at the ATP Cup this week, though, and lost his only contest against Moutet last year in Doha -- the Frenchman rode that victory all the way to the final as a qualifier. Despite the ranking disparity, this could be a pretty evenly matched fight and if we see an upset, it could set the stage for a big year for one of these guys.

Taylor Fritz (27) vs. Reilly Opelka: Fritz seems to have had his big rise up the rankings while I wasn't looking, beating the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev in 2019, bringing him into the top thirty. But while he did make it to the final in Acapulco last year, he lost more matches than he won that season. His big serving compatriot, though, ranked just out of seeding range, managed a title in Delray and got wins over Daniil Medvedev, Diego Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini. He lost all of his first rounds at Majors, but if he is able to break that streak to set up this match, it could be a great opportunity for him to finally make a statement.

Ugo Humbert (29) vs. Nick Kyrgios: The young Frenchman was one of my under the radar stars to watch, after a season that brought him titles in Auckland and Antwerp as well as wins over Denis Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev. He didn't come out of the gate swinging quite so hard this year, but still could put up a good show against the unseeded Kyrgios, who is nothing if not a showman. The hometown hero stayed off tour most of last year due to the pandemic and notched a few wins at the Murray River Open -- will that be enough to make a deep run here? Who knows, but you can be sure you'll see some sparks fly however far he goes.

Third Round

Stefanos Tsitsipas (5) vs. Carlos Alcaraz: The seventeen-year-old Spanish qualifier may only be ranked just inside the top 150, and he may be playing in his first Major main draw, but he's proven over the last year that he's a true talent. After a stunning defeat of Albert Ramos in Rio, he picked up three Challengers titles in the back half of the year and he stunned top seeded David Goffin at the Great Ocean Road Open this past week. It might be a lot to ask him to make the third round in his Slam debut, but he could do it, and a match against Tsitsipas, who was two-and-oh at the ATP Cup, could give us a real sense of what he's capable of.

Fabio Fognini (16) vs. Tennys Sandgren: Last week I would not have given the seeded Italian a second glance at this event -- the thirty-three year old lost eight of his last nine matches last year, including one against Sandgren in the Australian Open fourth round. But he seemed to get his game together at the ATP Cup this past week, notching wins over Benoit Paire and Pablo Carreño Busta on the way to the final. The controversial American, meanwhile, who was similarly unproductive at the end of 2020, lost in the second round of the Great Ocean Road Open after a spectacular outburst in his opener. Those recent results might set the stage for Fognini to avenge last year's loss.

Fourth Round

Diego Schwartzman (8) vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime (20): The fan favorite Argentine is coming off the best year of his career -- his first Major semi, his first Masters final, his first win over Rafael Nadal. The young Canadian, meanwhile, is coming off a final showing at the Murray River Open -- frustratingly, his seventh trip to a championship match without a title. FAA has only won a handful of matches at the Majors, and he's got to feel pressure to do something big, but perhaps the favorite can see his way to another deep run.

Alex de Minaur (21) vs. Daniel Evans (30): There would have to be a couple of upsets in this section of the draw for this match-up to come to fruition, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. De Minaur, who surprisingly went winless at the ATP Cup last week -- he won both his round robins last year -- reached his first Major quarterfinal in New York and won the title in Antalya last month. He'd have to get past Fabio Fognini, not to mention Tennys Sandgren, to make the fourth round. Evans, meanwhile, fresh off a title at the Murray River Open -- the first of his fifteen-year career -- may only be barely seeded, but posted wins over Andrey Rublev, David Goffin, and, yes, de Minaur himself last year, not to mention Felix Auger-Aliassime last week. He'd likely meet Rafael Nadal in the third round, but we know this isn't Rafa's best Major, and there's a chance the Brit could get things done.


Daniil Medvedev (4) vs. Andrey Rublev (7): These two paired up for an unbeatable showing at the ATP Cup last week, winning all of their singles matches to secure the title for Russia. And while Medvedev got a little jump start on his long-time friend, putting up one hell of a fight in the 2019 U.S. Open final before Rublev had his breakout last year, they're both on the cusp of cracking the big three's stranglehold on the Majors. If this match does in fact happen, I'd expect the younger Rublev to put up a bigger fight than he did in the New York quarters. Still, Medvedev is riding a fourteen match win streak -- which is only getting longer if he makes it this far -- and I'd be surprised if he let it end without a fight.

Gael Monfils (10) vs. Stan Wawrinka (17): It's asking a lot for these two vets to make it to the quarters. After a nice streak in the early spring of last year, injury slowed Monfils down after the pandemic, and after a loss in his only ATP Cup rubber, he hasn't won a match in almost a year. And Wawrinka, a winner here seven years ago has been a little hit-or-miss of late, beating Andrey Rublev in the Paris Masters but losing to world #239 Hugo Gaston at Roland Garros, winning a Challenger title in Prague and pulling out of the quarterfinals at the Murray River Open. They'd each have to pull off major upsets -- Monfils likely over Alexander Zverev and Wawrinka over long-time foil Novak Djokovic -- but it'd be fun to see some different members of the Old Guard make a run here. Why not these guys?


Rafael Nadal (2) vs. Daniil Medvedev (4): The theme of this round is the rematch. Remember how close Medvedev came to beating Nadal in the 2019 U.S. Open championship match? It was a nailbiter! Well, he eventually got revenge at the ATP Finals, one of the many wins in his current fourteen-match hot streak. And he might just be able to do it again on an even bigger stage. Of course, it's far from a given that both or either of these guys will make the final four -- Rafa, remember, has been notoriously unprolific in Melbourne -- but if they do, I begrudgingly give the advantage to the Russian (though, a little less begrudgingly than in the past).

Dominic Thiem (3) vs. Alexander Zverev (6): Remember how close Zverev came to beating Thiem in the 2020 U.S. Open championship match? It was a nailbiter! And while this rematch would likely mean the German was able to upset Novak Djokovic in the quarters, it could happen. Could there be a different outcome? For the sake of humanity, I hope not. But as long as Zverev is allowed to play, I can't deny that he's a force to be reckoned with. He won two titles in Hamburg last year and made the final at the Paris Masters. And he helped Germany to the ATP Cup semis this past week, while Thiem only won one match in a retirement. Still last year's runner-up now knows what it's like to win the big title and he'll be hungry to add another to his trophy case.


Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Rafael Nadal (2): What would be the 57th meeting between the two most decorated men in the field, as to be expected could only come in the final. And while Nole's chances of getting here, having won his last fourteen matches in Melbourne Park, are slightly better than those of Rafa, who won his one and only title here twelve years ago, their draws could play out exactly as their seedings predict. Nadal, after all, has made the final four more times since that 2009 run, and Djokovic is going for a ninth trophy Down Under. As the latter tries to narrow the gap in Grand Slams and the former tries to claim a record for himself, there's no better opponent for either of them.

Stefanos Tsitsipas (5) vs. Alexander Zverev (6): Then again, this could be the year we see a whole new slate of Grand Slam champions emerge. We saw Dominic Thiem break the seal in New York, so how about someone else now. Tsitsipas made the semis here in 2019, beating Roger Federer on the way, and Zverev, admittedly, came within inches of his own victory in New York. If these guys play at their best, they could guarantee another newbie making a victory lap. And you can guess whose side I'll be on to take home that crown.

Well, we made it! Two draws, seven rounds, and countless possibilities for great match-ups over the next fortnight. Whatever happens, there's the potential for some real history to be made on the courts of the Australian Open. And hopefully we all come out stronger on the other side of the action.

And while we wait for the first balls to be hit, here's hoping we can all pull it off safely.

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