By Seth Gellman
After an ATP Cup dominated by Russia, all eyes were on the Australian Open. Novak Djokovic, the World No. 1, was chasing his 9th Australian Open title. The two time defending champion sought to extend his Grand Slam count to 18, two behind both Nadal and Federer. On the other hand, Nadal was looking to capture his second Australian Open title to pass Federer and break the record for most Grand Slam titles, a highly coveted achievement. Other contenders in red hot form were Russians Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev. Neither player lost a match in the ATP Cup, a team tournament leading up to the AO.
The breakout story of the AO, however, was a different Russian. Aslan Karatsev made his grand slam debut at the AO after qualifying earlier in Doha. He went on to defeat three seeds and make the semifinals. He made history as his run to the semifinals in his first grand slam appearance has never been done before. He defeated Gianluca Mager in the first round 6-3 6-3 6-4, who, among other achievements, took down Dominic Thiem at last year’s Rio Open. In the second round, he decimated big serving Belarusian Egor Gerasimov, only losing one game. His third round match was against 8th seed Diego Schwartzman, who was coming off the best year of his career in 2020, reaching the top ten and ATP Finals for the first time. Karatsev allowed nothing, using his big hitting game to beat the Argentine 6-3 6-3 6-3. In the fourth round, 20th Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime was waiting for him. FAA, as many fans affectionately call him, defeated 11th seed and fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov in the previous round, playing smart, disciplined tennis. Auger-Aliassime kept this up into the 4th round, and many thought Karatsev was done. The Canadian won the first two sets 6-3 6-1. The Russian, however, showed the world he wasn’t done yet. Karatsev started dominating his service games and holding onto crucial breaks to complete the comeback and win 3-6 1-6 6-3 6-3 6-4 in just under three and a half hours. In the Quarterfinals, Karatsev was about to face his toughest test yet in Grigor Dimitrov. The Bulgarian used his slice and intelligent play to defeat 3rd seed Dominic Thiem in the 4th round. After a few service yips from the Russian, Dimitrov raced to claim the first set 6-2. However, the 18th seed soon appeared injured in the later stages of the second set and third set, calling the trainer and appearing unable to move. He appeared to have a back injury, and could barely move. He couldn’t serve with power or accuracy, and the severely hampered Dimitrov went out to Karatsev in four sets. Karatsev’s dream run had to come to an end at the hands of the most successful player in Australian Open history in Novak Djokovic. The Serbian defeated Karatsev 6-3 6-4 6-2 to end the fairytale run.
Another storyline was Djokovic’s injury. In the third set of his third round match against 27th seeded American Taylor Fritz, Djokovic faltered as he battled what he described as an abdominal injury. He believed that there was a torn muscle there. The Serbian won the first two sets, but dropped the next two after being severely hampered by injury. In the fifth set, Djokovic ramped up his serving, winning 88% of first serve points. Djokovic fought through big serving Milos Raonic in the fourth round, overcoming the Canadian 7-6 (4) 4-6 6-1 6-4. His movement appeared to be limited, but his serving was still at a very high level. The next match was against Zverev, with whom he enjoys a 5-2 lead in their Head to head. In a tightly contested match, Djokovic defeated the tall German in four sets. Zverev was up a break in the third and fourth sets, but Djokovic fought back to win 6-7 (6) 6-2 6-4 7-6 (6) and advance to the semifinals. Djokovic looked like he almost wasn’t injured in the semifinal, and played disciplined tennis to extend his record to 9-0 in Australian Open semifinals. Djokovic was entering the final with 100 aces in the tournament.
Some of the highlight matches from the tournament included Humbert vs. Kyrgios, Shapovalov vs. Sinner, and Nadal vs. Tsitsipas. Humbert vs. Kyrgios was a highly anticipated match. The Frenchman had a breakout 2020 season, winning two hard court titles and making his first Masters Quarterfinal in Paris last November. Kyrgios is one of the most controversial and talented players on tour, regularly breaking racquets and getting into arguments with the umpire. Kyrgios is one of the most dangerous unseeded players in the sport, as he has shown time and time again that he can compete with anyone. It was a rollercoaster, with both players holding serve. Each break was quickly consolidated into the set, with neither giving up much on serve. After winning the first and third sets, Humbert went up 5-3 to serve out the match in the fourth. Kyrgios, however, had other ideas. The Australian saved two match points and went on to claim the set in a tiebreak. Kyrgios broke Humbert early in the 5th set and never looked back, winning 5-7 6-4 3-6 7-6 (2) 6-4.
Shapovalov vs. Sinner was a matchup between two young guns looking to build on a good 2020. Both Shapovalov and Sinner reached their first slam Quarterfinal at the US Open and French Open last year respectively. Sinner won his first title at the Sofia Open last year. Sinner won the Great Ocean Road Open, a warm up tournament before the AO, as well. Shapovalov served with authority, only getting broken three times in the five set thriller. He won 75% of his first serve points and broke Sinner’s serve 5 times. Sinner generated a lot of break points despite Shapovalov’s strong serving, but only converted 3 of his 20 break points. Shapovalov held his nerve, fighting off one break point in the final game of the match to serve it out and win the match 3-6 6-3 6-2 4-6 6-4.
Tsitsipas vs. Nadal was another highly anticipated match between old talent and young hunger. Tsitsipas made his first major Semifinal at the Australian Open in 2019 and wanted to repeat that in 2021. Nadal wanted to win his 21st Grand Slam to overcome Roger Federer as the man with the most majors in tennis history. Nadal said earlier in the tournament that he slightly changed his service motion to deal with a lower back issue, but that was not apparent in the first two sets against Tsitsipas. Nadal broke Tsitsipas three times in the opening two sets to claim them 6-3 6-2. The third set saw them both hold until a tiebreak, with neither giving up much on serve. In an uncharacteristic tiebreak from Nadal, he committed four unforced errors, and Tsitsipas stayed solid to claim the tiebreak 7/4. The Greek superstar carried that momentum into the third and fourth sets, breaking Nadal once in each set and not dropping serve to claim the last two sets 6-4 7-5. In a late night thriller, Tsitsipas recorded his first win over Nadal on hard court 3-6 2-6 7-6 (4) 6-4 7-5.
Both Medvedev and Djokovic cruised through their semifinals, and the clash between the brash baseliners was sure to be a good one. Djokovic has such a long and successful history in Australia, and makes it very hard to argue against him being the favorite so often in Melbourne, but Medvedev seemed to make an equally appealing case. The Russian was on a 20 match win streak, dating back to November in the Paris Masters. In that time, he faced 12 top ten players. By making the final, Medvedev already secured his spot as third in the ATP rankings, but he wanted more. With a win in the final, Medvedev would become No. 2 in the ATP rankings, a feat not achieved by anyone outside of the Big 4 (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray) since July 2005. Lleyton Hewitt was the last man outside of the Big 4 to be included in the top 2 since then, and he hasn’t been in the top ten since 2006. On top of this, Medvedev won 3 of the last 4 meetings between the two, including one at the ATP Finals in November. So many called it a toss up, citing how good Djokovic has been in Australia and Medvedev’s spectacular form. The final was… far from expected. Djokovic entered the court with a clear gameplan, attacking the Medvedev forehand. He did this successfully and earned a break to go up 2-0 in the first set. He consolidated this lead to make it 3-0, even hitting a jumping smash up 40-0 in the third game. Flustered, Medvedev just tried to stay steady, and ended up winning the next two games, including a break back. Neither gave up much on serve until Medvedev had to serve to stay in the set at 5-6. Djokovic took advantage of the slower balls and raced to a 40-0 lead on the Medvedev serve. The Russian fended off two of those set points but missed a forehand into the net on the third, giving the first set to Djokovic. The Serbian never looked back, not giving Medvedev a peek into the match and serving with authority to claim his 9th Australian Open title 7-5 6-2 6-2. He frustrated Medvedev and the Russian just couldn’t keep it together for much of the last two sets, yelling at his box and appearing shaky.
The question that is asked every time Djokovic or Nadal faces one of the NextGen is: When will they break through? Thiem won his first slam at the US Open last year, but it took Nadal and Federer to both skip it and Djokovic to get disqualified. When will Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer stop dominating the sport? That’s the question on everyone’s mind after the dominant Australian Open final. Despite being out of their primes and past the age of when most tennis greats retired, they’re still going strong. Djokovic’s performance in this final was a clear answer to the question: “Not yet.”