The wait is over for the first tennis Grand Slam of the season, with the Australian Open bringing up the curtain on what is expected to be a stellar 2021.
The presence of spectators at Melbourne Park – 30,000 fans are expected to be in attendance – only adds to the occasion and there are plenty of questions waiting to be answered.
Can world number one Novak Djokovic claim a record-extending ninth Australian Open? Or will Rafael Nadal overtake Roger Federer and take sole ownership of one of the most prestigious records in the sport with his 21st Grand Slam title?
And the women’s competition is equally as exciting. There have been eight different female winners of the event within the last decade, so should we expect another new star to be born?
Medvedev Can Make his Mark
All eyes will understandably be on Djokovic and Nadal, who have won 37 Grand Slam titles between them and remain the two best players on the planet despite both comfortably into their 30s.
However, Dominic Thiem’s US Open triumph offered hope to those aspiring stars and suggested the gulf in class between Djokovic-Nadal and the rest is closing.
Djokovic, who was controversially disqualified from the US Open in September, is a warm order in his pursuit of a third straight Australian Open title but, with Thiem and Alexander Zverev both in his half, the draw could have been kinder.
Nadal has recorded only one of his 20 Grand Slam successes at the Australian Open – which came way back in 2009 – and there are concerns surrounding his well-being after withdrawals from ATP Cup ties with Alex De Minaur and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
With that in mind, Russian world number four Daniil Medvedev rates value to capitalise on Nadal’s vulnerabilities in the bottom half.
Medvedev finished 2020 on a high with titles in Paris and at the ATP finals in London, where he won all five of his matches and claimed the scalps of Djokovic, Nadal, Zverev and Thiem on his way to glory.
Medvedev’s Australian Open preparations have included straight-sets wins in the ATP Cup over Diego Schwartzman and Kei Nishikori and there should be few concerns for him until a quarter-final clash with compatriot Alexander Rublev.
The 24-year-old could reach only the fourth round of this event last year, but a runner-up berth and a semi-final spot from his last two visits to the US Open show he is capable of emulating that form in Grand Slam competition.
Belarusian Pair Appeal at Prices
The women’s game has never been so competitive. Serena Williams’ dominance is no more and each of the last six Grand Slam titles have been won by someone different. So whose turn is next?
There are no easy draws given the strength in depth and, at the prices, Belarusian duo Aryna Sabalenka and Viktoria Azarenka are the two worth siding with.
Sabalenka is a winning machine and despite being only 22 years of age, already has nine career titles to her name.
The world number seven finished 2020 with a rattle after claiming back-to-back titles in Ostrava and Linz and she continued where she left off this year, winning in Abu Dhabi in January and dropping only one set across her six scalps.
Sabalenka has yet to go beyond the fourth round in a Grand Slam, but she can beat anyone on her day and it is surely only a matter of time until she makes her Major breakthrough.
Another Belarusian with strong claims in Melbourne is former world number one Victoria Azarenka, who is a two-time Australian Open winner in 2012 and 2013.
Azarenka has struggled with injuries and has since given birth, but she reached the final of the US Open last year to show there is plenty of life in the legs of the 31-year-old yet.
The 12th-seed reached two more finals on the WTA Tour last season and her aggressive approach, with her added experience, may see her difficult to contain.
*All odds correct at time of writing