It’s a longstanding complaint: tennis lags behind other sports in data. This article published last week—Why Tennis isn’t ready to play Moneyball—enumerated the reasons why it’s so hard to come by uniform stats. If predictive analysis is a challenge in normal times, imagine the difficulty today. If we can’t get a reliable winners-to-errors count, what hope do we have for acquiring more meaningful metrics like “match record after spending 14 days in a Hyatt single room in strict quarantine” or “mindset amid a global pandemic”?
All of which is to say that handicapping a tennis tournament—a fool’s errand, if a fun and expected one—is always a fraught exercise. In advance of the 2021 Australia Open, it is especially knotty. But your intrepid correspondent persists. Bearing in mind that “it’s difficult to make predictions. Especially about the future,” herewith your men's and women's seed reports for the 2021 Australian Open, an event that’s already gone sideways….
1. Novak Djokovic
Your defending champion. Your A.O. champion eight times over, i.e. as many times as Federer has won Wimbledon. After a healed blister, a lengthy off-season, and quarantine in Adelaide, your likely champion in 2021.
2. Rafael Nadal
The winner of the previous major, Nadal has won this one only once (2009) and the lower back injury that caused him to miss a match at the ATP Cup is concerning. But he is Nadal, and is unrivaled when it comes to fighting and to finding solutions.
3. Dominic Thiem
Winner of the previous hardcourt major—and a Melbourne finalist in 2020. But, ach, did he look flat in the ATP Cup, including a straight set loss to Berrettini. And he's on the Djoko-half of the draw. Note, too, that coach Nicolás Massú tested positive for COVID and didn’t depart to Adelaide.
4. Daniil Medvedev
Winner of the ATP World Tour Finals ought to have some residual momentum/confidence from London. Reached the fourth round in Melbourne two years running—will be a disappointment if he doesn’t go further in 2021.
5. Stefanos Tsitsipas
Tennis’s seeker now looks for the next step in his ascent: a major final. Never entirely sure where he is temperamentally. But the game is there. And he will be bolstered by the crowd.
6. Alexander Zverev
You think you’ve had a tumultuous past six months? Zverev has….come within a point of winning his first major…flouted COVID-19 protocol, while multiple family members got the virus…had one ex-girlfriend announce she is pregnant with his child…while another accused him of domestic violence…settled a longstanding suit with one agent and “parted ways” with another…Otherwise, slow times. We’ll see whether this will motivate or enervate him. (Note Djokovic in the quarters; and note the adidas kits, for which he’s no longer the front man.)
7. Andrey Rublev
Coming off an absolutely stellar 2020 that saw him win five titles and more than 40 matches (quite a feat given the abbreviated schedule.). But still has never been beyond the quarters of a major.
8. Diego Schwartzman
Coming off a strange fall: a defeat of Nadal in Rome and a semifinal appearance in Paris—this was after a dreadful showing at the U.S. Open. Hard to imagine a player, bereft of weapons, actually winning a major in 2021. But he is tennis’s answer to the WPA worker. So much to like and admire here.
9. Matteo Berrettini
Scored the first top-three win of his career last week over Thiem. A very quiet 2020, even given the circumstances, winning just nine matches. But looks to be in form. Due for a result on the order of his 2019 U.S. Open semi run? Starts against Kevin Anderson, who has the superior career-high ranking of the two.
10. Gael Monfils
Monsieur Monf is playing his 16th Australian Open. Damn. They grow up, these entertainers. Been to the quarters in Australian only once. Went 0-4 in the fall and, much as we all love the guy, you wonder if the show, irretrievably, is drawing to an end.
11. Denis Shapovalov
Such a massive download of talent and he’s still only 21. But the salon is getting a bit impatient. Great at pushing opponents to 5-5. Significantly less great at closing sets and matches. First two matches of 2021: he lost an ATP Cup match to Djokovic 7-5, 7-5 and another to Zverev 7-6 in the third. And he drew young(er) Jannik Sinner off the bat…
12. Roberto Bautista Agut
Freed from captivity, he can go back to the business—and this is no knock—of beating the opponents he ought to and losing to the dozen or so ahead of him.
13. David Goffin
Coming off a disappointment of a French Open (first-round loss to Sinner) and then a 6-3, 6-3 loss last week to 17-year-old Carlos Alcaraz. You wonder if the tires aren’t starting to lose tread.
14. Milos Raonic
Former semifinalist (and nearly finalist) is always a danger, especially with that serve, especially on this surface. Just hope he doesn’t fall down.
15. Pablo Carreno Busta
Fourth round marks his best showing Down Under. Still hoping to eclipse this as his most notable moment in Melbourne.
16. Fabio Fognini
Big Fo on the come down. Coming off a fourth-round show last year, but just 13-13 in his Melbourne career. (In fact, this will be his 49th Major and he’s been beyond the fourth round just once, fairly remarkable for a guy who’s spent so much time in the top 20.) Always good for a show. Seldom good for a deep run.
17. Stan Wawrinka: The last of the four seeds—just four, this is remarkable…the women are in double digits—ever to have won a major. Wawrinka may be closer to 40 than to 30. But he is a former champ, fit, and always dangerous.
18. Grigor Dimitrov: Best days are perhaps behind him, but a former semifinalist—and, at the 2019 U.S. Open beat a member of the Big Three (Federer) at a hardcourt major.
20. Felix Auger-Aliassime: Found the new adidas contract. Still looking for the major breakthrough. It will come.
22. Alex DiMinaur: Still only 21 and so much to like, especially constitutionally. Missed the event last year after an ATP Cup injury.
24. Casper Ruud: A steady ascent (was outside the top 50 before the 2020 Australian Open). A lot of talent. Forgive the pun, you wish the Norwegian had more power to finish.
26. Hubert Hurkacz: The Florida-based Pole, who turns 24 in Week One, has already won a hardcourt title in 2021, your Delray champ.
30. Dan Evans: Erratic but talented and plays absent fear; which pretty much meets the definition of a dangerous floater.
31. Lorenzo Sonego: One spot out of seeding, fettucine-thin Italian beat Djokovic (6-2, 6-1!) in October.
Dark Horse Pasture
Jannik Sinner: This, likely, will mark the last event—for a long time—at which he will not be seeded.
Jan–Lennard Struff: One of these days, he punches through at a major.
Carlos Alcaraz: Spaniard is climbing fast and doesn’t turn 18 until May.
Nick Kyrgios: Hasn’t played a pro match in nearly a year. Didn’t miss tennis. Which is on-brand.
Reilly Opelka: More than a serve.
Tennys Sandgren: Came within a point of beating Federer to reach the semis last year; reached week two twice in the last four years. Starts against DiMinaur, but If all lurches right….
Frances Tiafoe: Due for a breakthrough. And seems to realize as much. Alas for him, Djokovic looms in round two.
Pablo Cuevas: Special nod to the King of Quarantine.
Sebastian Korda: Oh, wait…next time.
Sinner d. Shapovalov
First Round Matches to Watch
Sinner vs. Shapovalov: With their combined age, they’re barely eligible to run for president.
Cilic vs. Dimitrov: A lot of combined time in the top 10.
Goffin vs. Alexei Popyrin: Possible home cooking upset.
Medvedev vs. Pospisil: Rough starting match for both.
Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury. Again.
Djokovic d. Thiem
Medvedev d. Nadal
1. Ash Barty
Say this: she knows how to hold a pose. The top seed—for the second straight year—despite going nearly a year without a match. And drink every time you hear that she is trying to become the first Aussie women’s champ since….Chris O’Neil in 1978.
2. Simona Halep
All hail the durability/professionalism and longevity at the top that has snuck up on us. Came within a few points of winning this title in 2018. Can exact revenge on Iga Swiatek in round of 16.
3. Naomi Osaka
Winner of this event in 2019 and winner of the previous hardcourt major…Now so comfortable inhabiting her celebrity. A potentially tough first round against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. A potential de facto final in round of 16 against Mugu. But she’s our 2021 Australian Open champion pick.
4. Sofia Kenin
The defending champ should be a source of inspiration (and perhaps envy) to so many. But for a career predicated on overachievement, she also underperforms on occasion. How will she adjust to being the hunted, not the hunter? Note her second-rounder against Kaia Kanepi, a career seed-feaster.
5. Elina Svitolina
A lot of connectivity week-to-week. A lot of 404 Errors at the majors.
6. Karolina Pliskova
A former No. 1, but you wonder if she isn’t past the prime of her meridian. Still a threat, still a mighty server but she’s almost 29 and the majors results just haven’t been there. Tune-up loss to Danielle Collins, 7-6, 7-6, is perhaps symbolic.
7. Aryna Sabalenka
Make every shot a power shot. Coming off a loss to giant-killing Kanepi, but still a hot pick going in, after a 13-match win streak dating back to mid-fall, and career-high ranking. Two years ago, she was the hot pick as well…. and lost middle weekend (to Anisimova—badly). But there seems to be a new maturity.
8. Bianca Andreescu
At the last major she entered, she took the title. Alas, that was the 2019 U.S. Open nearly 18 months ago. This will be the cut-and-paste for her career but it applies to individual events as well: will her health keep pace with her talent? Comes in off a strict quarantine—with a coach who tested positive—and a withdrawal from a tune-up. But this is a champion’s mentality right here.
9. Petra Kvitova
Has demonstrated again and again—most recently in Paris—that she can play deep in majors. But the third major remains evasive. A finalist in Melbourne two years ago. But, now almost 31, is she still capable of seven consecutive wins?
10. Serena Williams
A huge opportunity, at age 39, to pick up that elusive No. 24. Last major title was here four years ago. Plenty of reasons for optimism, including the layoff and sharp 2021 performances thus far. Can still play top-shelf tennis. Can she do it for 14 sets? In that brutal fourth quadrant?
11. Belinda Bencic
A likable player and presence. More power than she lets on. Can play “ninja ball” and win with tactics. She’s reached a major semi—beating Osaka along the way. But her body betrays her and she hasn’t won a match since last February. Starts vs. Cleveland’s Lauren Davis.
12. Victoria Azarenka
Suddenly emerged as the WTA’s Earth Mother, a font of calm. But don’t overlook the tennis: two-time champ in Melbourne, very nearly won the previous major played on a hard court.
13. Jo Konta
A kindred spirit in Australia, where’s she had past success. So much churn in her entourage. So many erratic results.
14. Garbine Muguruza
A finalist last year. Maddeningly erratic; also perpetually dangerous. In her first three matches of Aussie ball, she lost a grand total of nine games. Watch out for her.
15. Iga Swiatek
Not only your winner of the previous major, but has won the last 14 sets she’s played at a major. Can she build on her Paris win? Her equipment change—usually a huge no-no—is a potential cause for concern. But she is too level-headed and self-possessed to marinate in her success.
16. Petra Martic
A stylish, athletic, likeable player who struggles to close and, you fear, is on the wrong side of her prime.
17. Elena Rybakina: The best player you have, perhaps, yet to see perform.
20. Maria Sakkari: Power, athleticism, defense, playing before a partisan Greek crowd…lots to like here.
22. Jennifer Brady: A U.S. Open semifinalist who has made the mid-career elevation but reached the fourth round here in 2017 in her first major main draw. Watch her playing doubles with Barty.
23. Angie Kerber: All former champs—even those in their mid-30s—get acknowledged.
27. Ons Jabeur: Crafty player who has taught herself to win—to wit: she defeated Wozniacki in 2020. Her results have improved, and so has her fitness.
Dark Horse Pasture
Danielle Collins: A semifinalist two years ago coming off a strong French Open as well. (And took a set off of Serena last week.)
Coco Gauff: Beat the defending champ (Osaka) last year. The hype thermometer has dropped a bit here. (Which is a disguised blessing.) Here’s hoping she straightens out that serve before it becomes….a thing. Starts off against Jill Teichmann, an athletic lefty from Switzerland.
Venus Williams: After paying respects to a 40-year-old still getting it done, consider that four years ago, she reached the final.
Leylah Fernandez: Canadian has been overshadowed by Andreescu but note the ascent.
Kaia Kanepi: Barely in the top 100, but still a giant killer at age 35.
Kaja Juvan d. Konta.
And it’s a second-rounder but watch for Kanepi-Kenin.
First Round Matches to Watch
Shelby Rogers vs. Francesca Jones: Rogers is a giant killer. Jones is the Week One story of the tournament.
Azarenka vs. Pegula: This has three sets written all over it.
Yulia Putintseva vs. Sloane Stephens: Man, could Stephens—a former major champ and semifinalist in Melbourne—use a good win.
Jabeur vs. Andrea Petkovic: If only because it lets us link this piece of writing.
Chloé Paquet vs. Mayar Sherif: Two qualifiers play for a six-figure (U.S.) skins match.
Elise Mertens and Sabalenka
Azarenka d. Barty
Osaka d. Halep