What we learned from the 2021 Australian Open

The first Grand Slam of the 2021 season saw familiar names engraved into the winners’ trophies. Here’s our eight takeaways from two weeks in Melbourne. 

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Etching her name into fans’ memories and the history books both at once, Japanese tennis star Osaka Naomi (pictured above) had these poignant words midway through the Australian Open:

“I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners up. You might, but the winner's name is the one that's engraved.”

It was Osaka’s name, indeed, that was once again written on the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, the 23-year-old capturing her second win in Melbourne and fourth major overall, beating American Jennifer Brady in the final – after a headline-grabbing triumph over Serena Williams earlier in the event, as well as saving two match points against Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza.

Just 24 hours after Osaka’s triumph, it was Novak Djokovic who ruled again at Melbourne Park, the Serbian star winning a record ninth Australian Open in nine finals appearances, not dropping a set against world No.4 Daniil Medvedev.

From the respective singles titles to headlines for Serena, Rafael Nadal, Ashleigh Barty and more, we reflect on eight things learned from the fortnight that was at the 2021 Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic maintains dominance

Despite suffering from a tournament-threatening injury early in the event, Djokovic grew in stature as his seven matches played out, and his ninth Australian Open title now puts him at 18 majors, only two behind all-time leaders Nadal and Roger Federer.

It also assures that Djokovic will break Federer’s record of 310 weeks as world No.1 early next month.

“I (try) to remind myself, pinch myself, of how important this is. Even though I have been fortunate to win many majors and play in many major finals in my life, I do enjoy the success every single time even more.” - Novak Djokovic on creating more Australian Open history

Djokovic said he would have withdrawn from the event because of his abdominal injury if it hadn’t been a Grand Slam, gutting out wins over American Taylor Fritz, Milos Raonic of Canada and German Alexander Zverev before sweeping past surprise semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev to reach a ninth final.

It was there that he was in full form: He beat Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in a devastating display of championship tennis. Next on his CV? He’d still like to hang Olympic gold around his neck...

Osaka rises to the top with fourth major win

If Djokovic has been the player to beat the last few years in men’s tennis, Osaka can now claim that same status on the women’s side, having won the last two majors she’s entered, capturing the AO just five months after winning the 2020 U.S. Open.

Playing with lethal power and controlled precision, a lighter moment in the third round vs. Ons Jabeur was an Internet hit, too: Osaka taking an on-court butterfly to safety.

If she floated like the butterfly, she certainly stung like a bee, too, denying Muguruza two match points in a topsy turvy fourth round encounter before belting by tricky (yet always-entertaining) Hsieh Su-Wei to setup a clash of the titans with Serena in the final four.

Unbothered by facing her childhood hero, Osaka soared into a fourth major final and kept intact her unblemished record with the most cherished hardware on the line, beating Brady 6-4, 6-3.

While Tokyo 2020 is on her mind, so too is leaving a legacy: “Hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favourite player,” Osaka said. “For me, I think that's the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. ... Unfortunately, I didn't get to play (my hero) Li Na, but I just think that that's how the sport moves forward.”

Is this farewell? Serena stopped short by Naomi

And how does Serena move forward? The 39-year-old American made another deep, inspired run at a major, playing vintage Serena tennis in wins over Aryna Sabalenka in round four and Simona Halep in the quarters, clad in a Florence Griffith Joyner-inspired one-legged catsuit and moving better on the court than she had in years.

But Osaka was better on the day in the semis, and a heartfelt wave to the Rod Laver Arena crowd with her hand on her chest prompted some to speculate Serena could be nearing the twilight of her career.

“If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone. So..." - Serena Williams on retirement speculation

She left her press conference a few moments later, visibly emotional after a tough loss. She remains at 23 major titles won, just one shy of the all-time record.

Heads held high: Medvedev, Brady gracious as runners-up

It was a second major final for Daniil Medvedev and the first for Jen Brady, both players age 25. Medvedev had maintained a 20-match win streak into the final, only to be undone by Djokovic. Brady was one of 72 players to endure a hard lockdown for two weeks in a hotel room, after an individual on her flight to Melbourne tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival.

Nevertheless, they both see light in their future tennis tunnels:

“I think I belong at this level. I think winning a Grand Slam is totally achievable,” Brady said after her final.

“If you were to ask me maybe a year ago, I wouldn't think it's possible or it would feel like it's (comparable with) going to Mars. I would say just being more comfortable at this level, yeah.” - Jen Brady on her progress over the last 12 months

Said Medvedev: “Today my best, I was not happy with myself during the match. I felt like I'm doing my best, but it's not there. It happens. This is also life. That's why, you know, I always say that after I finish my career, no matter 20 slams, one slam, zero slams, if I always try... that's where I will have no regrets when I finish my career no matter what I achieve. That's (what) find the most important after such defeats.”

Taking the positives: Nadal, Barty, Halep reflect

While Brady and Medvedev are still eyeing their first Grand Slam glory, major champs Nadal, Barty and Halep have positives to take away, even if they came up short at an event they were hungry to win.

Nadal shrugged off a bad back injury pre-tournament to make the quarter-finals, the 12th in his career in Melbourne. But it was there that Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas stormed back from a two-set deficit, becoming just the third player in history to beat Nadal from two sets down.

World No.1 and home hope for Aussies, Barty looked locked in until her quarter-final match-up against tricky Czech player Karolina Muchova, who shook off a sullen first set to shock Barty in three, denying Australia a home-grown champ - a streak that has lived on for some 40 years.

Halep had been a finalist here in 2018, and looked primed to make her own dash towards glory, avenging a loss from Paris against French Open champ Iga Swiatek. But Serena was devastatingly good in their quarter-final, derailing the Romanian’s plans for a third Slam.

Serena Williams bids the crowd farewell - for now, Australian Open 2021
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Crowds or not, the tennis plays on

There were fans... and then there weren’t. The Australian Open was seen as one of the first large-scale international sporting events to bring large crowds back into a stadium, with upwards of 30,000 tickets per day being sold for the first five days of the event.

Australia has had little to no community spread of Covid-19 over the last several months, the tournament requiring players a two-week quarantine upon arrival.

But a snap lockdown in Melbourne and its surrounding area mid-tournament meant the tennis could go on, but without fans, leaving players to compete in front of only the TV cameras for the middle rounds of the tournament.

They were back, however, for the business end of the AO, with the main arena at 50 percent capacity over the final four days: “I think (the crowd) added a little bit of extra nerves, a little bit of extra pressure, just wanting to perform well in front of people,” Brady said of having fans back in the stands. “And to have the fans there is just a different atmosphere. Even if it was first round, to have the fans there cheering, it's just more emotional.”

Eyes on Olympics: Tokyo a goal for many

While the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open remain on the calendar for what is otherwise an uncertain 2021 season, players spoke openly about the pending Summer Games in Tokyo, too.

“Everyone kind of knows the Olympics is a really big deal for me. It would be my first Olympics. For it to be in Tokyo of course would be a dream. For sure I think every athlete is looking forward to it.” - Osaka Naomi on her hopes for the Tokyo Games

Barty said she has dreamt of the Olympics “every day” during her training the past year: “I think it would be very, very cool to call myself an Olympian. ... I’ve missed out a couple of times by the skin of my teeth and it’s a massive priority for me.”

Breakthroughs for Karatsev, Pegula and more

Who picked world No.114 Karatsev to make the Australian Open semi-finals in his Grand Slam debut? The 27-year-old from Russia, who had competed mostly at the lower level ATP Challenger circuit, had never played in a major before qualifying and making a dream run, taking out No.8 seed Diego Schwartzman, young star Felix Auger-Aliassime and an injured Grigor Dimitrov before being stopped by Djokovic in the semis.

Almost as dreamy Down Under was Jessica Pegula's effort, the world No.61 topping two-time champ Victoria Azarenka in round one, then upsetting fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina before losing to good friend Brady in the quarters.

Other feel-good stories of the event? The return of Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis (who lost in five sets to Tsitsipas in round two); Nick Kyrgios' pair of dramatic triumphs on 'The People's Court' before bowing out to Dominic Thiem; doubles wins for Sabalenka with partner Elise Mertens, as well as Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek, the latter who had previously retired for five years; and Dylan Alcott winning his seventh Australian Open quad wheelchair singles title in front of a home crowd.