Three questions to define tennis in 2021

Three questions to define tennis in 2021

Afternoon all. Hope you all had a great Christmas in spite of the strange global situation in which we all continue to exist. I have apparently finished digesting the leg of ham and mountain of chocolate ice cream that I gorged on Christmas eve and feel ready, just about, to start working again.

With the festive season well under way, the majority of sports (that I follow) are in the middle of the off-season. Players, coaches and fitness staff, after all, deserve presents from Father Christmas too.

Tennis is one of those sports that traditionally shuts down during December and this year, somewhat surprisingly, is no different. Despite a truncated and disrupted 2020 season, during which the tour was dormant for the best part of six months, there have been several interesting developments and evolutions in the tennis world over the past 12 months. At the US Open, Dominic Thiem provided the sport with its first new Grand Slam champion since Marin Cilic in 2014 after beating Sascha Zverev in five nervy sets. Then, at the ATP Finals last month, Daniil Medvedev claimed the title to become the fourth successive first-time champion at London’s O2 Arena. While the Big Three still largely dominate the main tournaments, 2020 provided more signs than ever that tennis is preparing for a changing of the guard.

With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at three key questions that look set to dominate the narrative of the ATP Tour in 2021. Let’s get into it:

Will Djokovic remain the man to beat?

This will be the most fascinating story in 2021. Djokovic has undoubtedly been the player to beat in recent times, winning five of the past nine Grand Slams. The Serb had a familiarly dominant start to 2020, winning his first four tournaments either side of the lockdown, including the Australian Open and the only two Masters tournaments – Cincinnati and Rome – that avoided cancellation.

Since then, however, there have just been a few signs that Djokovic’s form is dipping. Including his thrashing at the hands of Rafa Nadal in the French Open final, the Serb won just four of his last eight matches of the season. In Vienna, for example, he was entirely outclassed by Lorenzo Sonego, falling 6-2, 6-1 to the unheralded Italian (ranked number 42 at the time). Then, as the top seed at the ATP Finals, he stumbled into the semifinals before losing a tight contest to Dominic Thiem. With the exception the 18-month spell between 2017-2018, during which he was severely hampered by an elbow injury, this was the Serb’s worst run of form since 2013.

Of course, it was still a great year for Djokovic, who finished as the year-end number one for the sixth time in the past 10 years. But can the 33-year-old rediscover his dominant form in 2021? Or is this the beginning of the end of the Djokovic era?

Can the NextGen step up again?

One of the main trends in 2020 was the marked improvement in results and performance by the so-called “NextGen.” While the likes of Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev have been threatening to disturb the status quo at the top of the game for some time, all three were able to challenge for the top prizes on a more consistent basis this year.

Zverev seemed to finally overcome his Grand Slam hoodoo, reaching the semifinals in Melbourne and the final in New York. The German also reached the final at the Paris Masters, beating Nadal in a high-quality semifinal along the way. Medvedev finished the season in spectacular fashion by winning both in Paris and at the O2. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, had another solid campaign, successfully defending his Marseille title and reaching the semifinals at both the French Open – where he took Djokovic to five sets – and Cincinnati.

Thanks to the arrival of Andrey Rublev at elite level and the consistently strong performances of Matteo Berrettini, there are now five players under the age of 25 in the top 10. It will be intriguing to see whether or not they can continue to develop and take the next step, which, of course, is to start winning Grand Slams at the expense of the Big Three.

Can tennis return to normal?

Away from the court, the tennis narrative has naturally been dominated by the pandemic. Tournaments were cancelled or rescheduled all over the place, and this chaos looks likely to continue through 2021. Although a smattering of spectators were allowed at select tournaments post-lockdown, most matches were played behind closed doors from August to November, fundamentally changing the experience for players, commentators and fans. It still feels bizarre and almost surreal when a player hits a lightning forehand winner down the line on break point, to be met with the applause of no-one but his coach. The contrast between the partisan crowds seen at last year’s inaugural ATP Cup and the deathly silence awaiting the teams this year will be stark. The sooner fans can get back into the stadiums, the better.

Covid is also making things difficult for the players away from the court. They will, for example, have to spend up to 19 hours a day in their hotel rooms during a two-week quarantine period prior to February’s Australian Open, before being restricted to a strict biosecure “bubble” during the tournament. Many are speculating that this is at least part of the reason why Federer, a father of four, has withdrawn and will not play in Melbourne for the first time in 22 years. As vaccines are rolled out across the world, everyone in the tennis community will be hoping that the tournament experience can return to something resembling normal next year.

Right, that’s that for now. I’ll be back with a pre-New Year’s post on Wednesday. Until then, take it easy everyone and stay safe.

—What do you think will be the main talking points as the 2021 ATP season develops? Let me know in the comments section below!—