Tennis in 2021: Big three’s quest for the record books continues


he quest for the record books begins again in Australia, albeit later than anticipated in February as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

And in all probability, the year will begin with Novak Djokovic winning the 18th Grand Slam title which he should – his petulance aside – have achieved at this year’s US Open. 

That would leave him two shy of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and the fact that he has won seven of the past 10 editions of the tournament mark the world No1 out as the overwhelming favourite for victory in Melbourne, especially with injury ruling the Swiss out.

The two major caveats to that are Nadal and Dominic Thiem. Nadal ended last season looking fresh and without injury, which cannot often be said about the Spaniard at the end of a punishing campaign, while Thiem has the belief he can topple any of the big three on hard courts now as well as the clay. 

The US Open champion knocked out Nadal in the quarter-finals of last year’s Australian Open and pushed Djokovic to five sets in the final.

Plus, he ended the year as the form player along with Daniil Medvedev, losing the ATP Finals to the Russian in a tight final. 

But too often those finals – played out in London for the last time in November – have acted as a false dawn, its recent winners – Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – all struggling with fitness, form or consistency in the subsequent year. 

But Medvedev and Thiem appear genuinely unfazed by the number of Grand Slam titles in the back pocket of their opponent. Could 2021 be the year when the triumvirate is finally toppled? 

( Getty Images )

Of that big three, Federer is the most doubtful of adding to his tally of 20. He hinted even a delayed Australian Open might come too soon for his knee after double surgery, and even dared to admit that approaching his 40th birthday the end might have come. And yet if he can get fit for Australia, he is always a threat there. 

As for the other Grand Slams, if fit it is hard to look much beyond Nadal at the French Open, Thiem the one player with a realistic chance of beating him on the clay of Roland Garros. 

And then comes both Wimbledon and the US Open, potentially ripe for Djokovic to find himself on 20 Grand Slams at the season end, or else a chance for Medvedev, Thiem or one of the other members of their generation to do so. 

Next year also begs the question of Andy Murray. His win over Dan Evans at the Battle of Brits earlier this month showed he is getting there – but will his hip ever allow him the back-to-back five setters required of a Grand Slam?

Serena Williams, like Federer 40 in 2021, remains on her own quest for the record books on 23 Grand Slams and one behind Margaret Court.  

But it was the start of 2017 when pregnant with her daughter that she last won a Grand Slam. Four finals have been and gone since and last year she only once made it past the third round of a Slam, with a run to the US Open semi-final. 

Ash Barty begins the year as world No1 having been absent for much of 2020 because of the pandemic, with Simona Halep just back in second after she made a delayed return to the tour. Naomi Osaka is among those capable of battling for the world No1 spot after ending her year by winning the US Open. 

And on the British front, Johanna Konta will hope to recapture her previous heights after reuniting with former coach Dimitri Zavialoff. 

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