We’re through 14 consecutive days in Australia but this time it wasn’t a quarantine! The first grand slam of the 2021 season wrapped from Melbourne Sunday with peak level tennis from some of the greatest players on the planet, surprise performances from lesser lights and immaculate highlights on and off the court.
With the hardware now handed out, here are five takeaways from the 2021 Australian Open.
The undisputed king of Melbourne
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic remains simply untouchable in Melbourne, regardless of the circumstance. Djokovic overcame an injury scare early in the tournament against American Taylor Fritz — where he suffered an oblique injury — and again managed to muster up his very best tennis when it mattered the most. He dismantled an often frustrated and bewildered-looking Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in just 1 hour, 53 minutes to win his record ninth title Down Under and 18th major championship, moving him just two behind rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
While he was masterful as always in the baseline game, Djokovic was perhaps best on the return side, winning 19 of 28 points on Medvedev’s serve and breaking it seven times.
Djokovic’s dominance at Rod Laver Arena is truly staggering. He’s not only a perfect 9-0 in finals on the court, but he’s also undefeated when he reaches the semifinals in Melbourne.
While the French Open remains Rafael Nadal’s stomping grounds, Djokovic looks like the consensus favourite heading into Wimbledon and the U.S. Open later this season.
No stopping Naomi
Perhaps what is most impressive about Naomi Osaka’s fourth major title is she very well could’ve been knocked out of the tournament a week prior by Garbine Muguruza. The Spaniard was playing her best tennis and had pushed Osaka to the brink, with two match points late in the third set of their round of 16 encounter.
That’s when Osaka hit another proverbial gear, which she often seems to unlock in the most pivotal moments of big matches.
She’d escape the match with Muguruza, cruise past surprise quarterfinalist Hseih Su-Wei, and takedown all-time great Serena Williams to return to the final in Melbourne for the first time in two years.
While American Jennifer Brady was a worthy finalist and challenger, Osaka played the cleaner match of the two and feasted on her opportunities, converting four of five break point chances.
Osaka has won 21 consecutive matches when she’s taken the court (she lost via walkover to Victoria Azarenka at the Western & Southern Open last summer). To find the last match she lost, you must return to Jan. 24 of 2020 — a 6-3, 6-4 defeat to Coco Gauff.
She also might have had the best accidental troll game in the trophy ceremony:
Omg noI promise you my mind thought I called her Jenny in that moment and I was so confused why the crowd was laughing. I’m so sorry https://t.co/fqS3nPBb1C
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) February 21, 2021
Osaka is now undefeated in Grand Slam finals at a sterling 4-0, the first woman to do so since Monica Seles accomplished the feat 30 years ago.
Her ascent to superstardom has been remarkable. Last year she earned $37.4 million from endorsements, the all-time earnings record for a female athlete in a single year.
Osaka has generational talent written all over her.
Don’t Bet against the Big Three
While media pundits and fellow pro players kept eagerly expecting the next generation of stars to claim their share of titles against the men’s Big Three (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic), they were again denied in Melbourne.
With Djokovic’s 18th title, the Big Three have now amassed 58 grand slams. Perhaps a more staggering statistic: a member of the Big Three has claimed at least one major title in every season since 2003.
Dominic Thiem did win his maiden title last season at the U.S. Open, but even that required an absence of Rafael Nadal at the tournament, and an unfortunate turn of events for Djokovic, who was disqualified from the quarterfinals there for accidentally hitting a lineswoman with an errant ball.
We are still very much within the most dominant generation in the history of men’s tennis. Unless we see retirements in the next few years — with Federer likely the first — you’ll have to drag these guys off the courts kicking and screaming before they relinquish major titles.
Serena’s chase continues
Serena Williams was insistent that she no longer absorbed great pressure in her chase for Margaret Court’s grand slam singles record of 24 titles and it showed in her tennis through the first week and a half in Melbourne. She was displaying some of the best on-court movement we’ve seen from her in years, fending off the likes of Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep with big-time performances.
Check out her defensive skills in this memorable exchange with Sabalenka:
— くれふぁ@暫定垢 (@umbre_sports532) February 14, 2021
The great run was stood up by the greater Osaka, who defeated Williams 6-4, 6-3 in the semifinals. While the loss no doubt stung, you can promptly dismiss any ridiculous notion that Serena is still not a top contender at these events.
She’s reached the semifinals or better in six of the last 11 majors. She’s close, but the field is also deep.
Cinderella stories emerge
Even some of the most astute tennis experts were relatively unfamiliar with Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev. If they had heard of him, they certainly were not pencilling him in for a run to the semifinals at a major.
The 27-year-old had been a mainstay on the Challenger circuit and found his best level through the tail end of 2020, winning a pair of tournaments in Prague and Ostrava to bring his ranking up to world No. 114.
Nevertheless, he entered Melbourne having qualified for a major for the first time in his career. After cruising through his first two matches, he stunned eighth-seeded Argentinian Diego Schwartzman to reach the round of 16, then rallied from down two sets to love to knock out Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime.
He then defeated an injured Grigor Dimitrov in four sets to become the first man in Open Era history to reach the semifinals of a major in his main draw debut.
The luck finally ran out against Djokovic, but it was an unforgettable breakthrough — and payday. Karatsev will take home a $660,875 US paycheque from the tournament which is more prize money than what he has earned to date through his entire eight-year career on the ATP circuit.
On the women’s side, American Jessica Pegula produced a stunning run of tennis to advance to her first career Grand Slam quarterfinal.
It was punctuated by a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over world No. 5 Elina Svitolina.
Sports fans will recognize the last name. Jessica is the daughter of Terry and Kim Pegula, the billionaire business family and owners of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres.
Don’t bring that up so cavalierly though:
*American Jessica Pegula WTA tour/professional tennis player https://t.co/D8J09Oiexr
— Jessie Pegula (@JLPegula) February 15, 2021
With the result, Pegula has risen to a career-high of No. 43 in the rankings.