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Old guard chasing history in unprecedented times

China Daily | Updated: 2021-01-06 09:24
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Novak Djokovic (left) and Rafael Nadal. [Photo/Agencies]

Greats bidding to cement their legacies amid season of uncertainty

The 2021 tennis season gets underway this week with the men playing ATP tournaments at Delray Beach in Florida and Antalya in Turkey while four of the top 10 women's stars line up at the Abu Dhabi WTA event.

It's a new-look starting schedule to a year in which many tournaments remain under a cloud due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

AFP Sport looks at the talking points and emerging players to watch out for:

New year, old fears

・ The pandemic brought havoc to the 2020 season with the sport halted for the best part of five months, Wimbledon canceled for the first time since World War II, the US Open played behind closed doors and Roland Garros delayed until September.

The 2021 Indian Wells tournament-often dubbed the 'fifth Grand Slam', but was the first event to be scrapped due to the virus last year-has already been postponed.

This year's Australian Open will take place three weeks later than planned with all players to quarantine on arrival in Melbourne.

Qualifying for the season's first major will take place 12,000 kilometers away in Dubai and Doha.

So far the ATP has only confirmed a schedule until the Miami Masters which ends on April 4 while the WTA has yet to reveal plans beyond the Australian Open which concludes on Feb 20.

Legends' last stand?

・ Roger Federer and Serena Williams will celebrate their 40th birthdays in 2021 with question marks over whether this season will represent their final hurrahs.

Federer, whose record haul of 20 Grand Slam titles was equaled by Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2020, has not played since last year's Australian Open as he recovers from a knee injury.

The Swiss has already pulled out of this year's trip to Melbourne leaving the path clear for Nadal to potentially win a record-setting 21st major.

On the tour since 1998, Federer will be 40 on Aug 8, just a week after the men's final at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics where he is expected to chase an elusive singles gold medal.

Meanwhile, US superstar Williams reaches 40 on Sept 26-two weeks after the conclusion of the US Open.

Williams will once again attempt to pull level with Margaret Court as a 24-time Grand Slam champion.

Her last triumph at the majors, however, came in Australia in 2017 when she was pregnant.

Novak's No 1 goal

・ Novak Djokovic, the reigning Australian Open champion and 17-time major winner, last month became just the second man after Federer to spend 300 weeks as world No 1. The 33-year-old Serbian is expected to pass Federer's all-time record of 310 weeks on top of the pile on March 8.

"This is one of my two biggest professional goals," Djokovic said last month.

"To reach the record of and surpass Roger's record for longest time at No 1 and win as many Slams as possible. Hopefully I can stay healthy and continue to play well."

Ones to watch

Carlos Alcaraz

・ He's Spanish and wins titles on clay. Sound familiar? Where Rafael Nadal leads, others follow and 17-year-old Carlos Alcaraz appears to be the 20-time major winner's most obvious heir.

Alcaraz won three titles on clay in 2020 on the second-level Challenger Tour and was voted the ATP's Newcomer of the Year.

He climbed 350 places in the world rankings to finish 2020 at 141 after reaching a career-high of 136 in October. He was also the youngest player in the year-end top 200.

Leylah Fernandez

・ The 18-year-old Canadian, whose father is Ecuadorian and mother is Filipino, ended 2020 at 88 in the world, up from 209 at the conclusion of the 2019 season.

Just 5-foot-4 (1.6 meters) tall, the left-hander enjoyed a breakout run to the third round at Roland Garros where it took two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova to halt her progress.

Earlier in 2020, the Montreal-born Fernandez went through qualifying to make her first WTA final in Acapulco where she lost in three sets to experienced British player Heather Watson.

Off the court, the teenager is working on her footwork-by learning to salsa!


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