Revamped Aussie may mean 1st-time winners

By Lew Ford  () 

For those who are confused about what is going on with the start of the 2021 tennis season, you are not alone.

The Australian Open kicks off Monday in Melbourne with 25,000 fans per day expected. The Australian government and the tennis federation put together a plan for all players to arrive on the same date and enter a two-week soft quarantine. Everyone would be allowed to practice and prepare for several hours each day.

But due to positive tests on certain flights, 72 players had to go into a two-week hard quarantine and were not allowed to leave their rooms. Players unaffected by the COVID-19 protocols are playing in five tournaments this week, including the ATP Cup. The group that had to deal with the hard quarantine is now practicing and will play in an event created for them from Wednesday through Sunday. Obviously, those players will be at a competitive disadvantage after not having played for two weeks and needing to squeeze their preparation into a one-week window.

It’s a very confusing situation to handicap, and it’s wise to take a cautious approach regarding the futures market. All the uncertainty and lack of tournament-level matches will make this a wide-open event and is likely to produce first-time winners. Odds should change before the start based on players’ performances in matches this week.

Here are some players to watch on the futures board.

Daniil Medvedev (6-1): It looked like Medvedev might break through at the 2020 U.S. Open, but he lost in the semifinal to eventual champ Dominic Thiem. There is nothing physically he cannot do on the court, as he wins a staggering 82% of his first-serve points and has a strong return game, winning 34% of first serves. He has experience winning big matches against top players, going 16-19 vs. the top 10, and has won nine tournament titles. Medvedev's biggest flaw is a tendency to lose his cool at the wrong moment. If he can stay mentally tough and focused, he could make the Aussie his first major victory.

Alex de Minaur (60-1): Injuries prevented him from playing in last year's Aussie Open, but he reached the quarterfinals of the 2020 U.S. Open and already has won this season. The speed demon will not overpower any of the top players. But he has an excellent return game, winning 36% of first-serve returns, and will chase down every shot and wear down opponents. The crowd will be behind him as he attempts to become the first Australian to win at home since 1978.

Bianca Andreescu (17-1): Health and fitness are the main challenges for her heading into the 2021 season. Injuries cost Andreescu the start of 2020, and when the tour restarted, she opted out. It has been 15 months since we’ve seen her play, but during her run to the 2019 U.S. Open title, she won two tournaments and had a 24-2 record. Andreescu has an impressive 39.9% first-serve return winning percentage and has shown the ability to come through in the clutch.

Elena Rybakina (38-1): Six tournaments were played before the shutdown in 2020, and Rybakina won one and made three other finals. But her results were not great after the restart, and she has yet to have a good performance in a major, but she started 2021 by making a semifinal. Rybakina has a dominant serve, winning 69.6% of first-serve points, but must improve her return game to win the Aussie.


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