Novak Djokovic is once again the King of Melbourne, maintaining his stranglehold on the Australian Open title for a record ninth time. Coming in as a heavy favourite from the outset of the event, the world #1 was dominant in taking his eighteenth Grand Slam title. Naomi Osaka was also unstoppable in her quest to recapture the women’s title.
Half of Djokovic’s Grand Slam haul has come in Melbourne, and the champion ended his speech by showing his affinity to the venue, “I would like to thank this court - Rod Laver Arena, I love you each year more and more.” In the final, the Serb went toe-to-toe for most of the first set with Daniil Medvedev, but then stamped his authority on the match, allowing no inroads to the Russian, who was playing in his second Slam final. The 7-5 6-2 6-2 scoreline demonstrated the Serb’s will to make history.
Naomi Osaka also continues to be the toughest player to beat on hard courts, claiming a fourth major adding to her 2019 title in Melbourne and two US Opens. The Japanese player brushed aside the challenge of Grand Slam final debutante Jennifer Brady (USA) with a 6-4 6-3 win in the title decider.
European players dominated the men’s draw, accounting for 14 of the 16 players to reach the fourth round. The fairy tale story of the tournament belonged to Aslan Karatsev. Ranked 114th and playing in his first Grand Slam, the Russian won three qualifying matches before going on to upset the likes of Diego Schwartzmann, Felix Auger-Aliassime and a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov before falling to Djokovic in the semis. Another inspiring run was that of former European 16&U Champion Carlos Alcaraz. The 17-year-old Spaniard also earned his maiden Slam appearance by coming through the qualifying competition. He continued his run of form in the main draw, becoming the youngest player in seven years to win a Grand Slam match. He was stopped in the second round by another former European Junior Champion, Mikael Ymer (SWE), who progressed to the third round of a major for the first time.
The golden age for European men continues at the Grand Slams. The last time a non-European won in Australia was as far back as 2003 (Andre Agassi, USA). 64 of the last 65 majors have been won by Europeans, dating back to 2004 - Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro being the exception which his victory in New York in 2009.
There were mixed results for the leading European women. In contrast to the men’s draw, only two of the eight quarterfinalists were from Europe. The first was a surprise package in the form of Karolina Muchova, who had her best ever showing at a major advancing to the semis. Ranked #27, she saw off Czech compatriot Karolina Pliskova before backing that up with a win over Elise Mertens and finally coming from behind to upset the world #1 and local favourite Ashleigh Barty in a three-set win. The other quarter-finalist was the perennially consistent Simona Halep, although perhaps the standout performance was that of Garbiñe Muguruza, who managed to maintain her pre-AO form, taking Osaka to the brink in an exciting fourth round clash in which the Spaniard had two match points and almost derailed the eventual champion.
The doubles event was particularly fruitful for European players, who had at least one pair of hands on all three trophies:
Ivan Dodig (CRO) & Filip Polasek (SVK) d. Joe Salisbury (GBR) & Rajeev Ram (USA) 6-3 6-4
Elise Mertens (BEL) & Aryna Sabalenka (BLR) d. Barbora Krejcikova (CZE) & Katerina Siniakova (CZE) 6-2 6-3
Barbora Krejcikova (CZE) & Rajeev Ram (USA) d. Sam Stosur & Matt Ebden (AUS) 6-1 6-4
The junior competitions in Australia were postponed and are to be rescheduled for later in the year. Following months of meticulous planning between Tennis Australia and local authorities as well as an arduous 14-day quarantine for the participants, the successful staging of the 2021 Australian Open serves to demonstrate how Grand Slam tennis can proceed during the pandemic. When the professional tours return to action next week with events spread across four continents, the players will no doubt savour memories of competing in front of the enthusiastic crowds in a COVID-free Melbourne.