Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).
After years of shrugging off predictions as a player, former world No. 5 Daniela Hantuchova finds herself face-to-face with her analytic nemesis in her transition to the commentary booth.
"I really wish I had a crystal ball," she joked after the Australian Open draws were revealed on Friday, "or perhaps a lifeline: could I phone a friend or have a 50/50?"
Since retiring from the WTA Tour in 2017, the 2008 Australian Open semifinalist has had to make those tough calls, made all the more complicated by the circumstance resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"All of that evens up the field so much more, and whoever is mentally toughest and able to accept everything that has been thrown at the players—which, I have to say again, they deserve so much credit and respect because it’s been very tough on them—will have the biggest advantage."
Still, a well-shuffled draw can clear up even the foggiest of visions. Hantuchova previewed the fields as they shook out, and broke down the game's biggest names into three categories of those most worth watching over the fortnight Down Under.
Novak DJOKOVIC (SRB)
It’s so hard to choose between Novak and Rafael Nadal, but I have to give it to Novak in a 51-49 split. With players like him or Nadal, you don’t really think about the draw as much. It’s more about how he has performed in Australia in the past.
It is, by far, his most successful Slam, and I know he worked extremely hard during his pre-season on his fitness. To me, he looks stronger and more muscular, and given the conditions in Australia, that will absolutely be a factor.
He’s as physically prepared as he could possibly be, and mentally, he’s proven capable of putting disappointments behind him, so I doubt he’s even thinking of what happened this year. He’s in a tough section, there’s no question about that, but in a way, I think Novak likes situations like these because they tend to bring out the best in him. He’s starting against an experienced player right away in Jeremy Chardy, so Novak will be keenly aware that he needs to play his best tennis right from the start.
Simona HALEP (ROU)
It’s the toughest that it has ever been to pick a favorite, because typically we’re able to judge on several weeks of warm-up events, and now with everything happening in one week, there’s a much smaller body of evidence.
Between Simona and Serena Williams, I give Simona a similarly slight edge. I wouldn’t worry about her loss to Ekaterina Alexandrova. Her main focus is the big one around the corner, and I can understand, especially since it appeared she was dealing with a small injury, that she may not have wanted to take the risk of playing full out and aggravating it further.
Simona is in a similar situation to Nadal, for me, where it has come down to a little bit of bad luck here and there, because she has everything it takes to win in Australia. I think it’s huge that she has someone like Darren, someone native to the country, in her corner as her coach. I don’t think she’s missing anything in her game, or needs to do anything extra. I know her physical coach, as well, so I know she had an intense pre-season and is physically fit. If she plays her tennis, fights hard—which she’s managed to do over the last few years, playing at a consistently high level—I would make her the favorite to win that third leg of a Career Grand Slam.
Rafael NADAL (ESP)
It’s so strange to think he has only won the Australian Open once, but he’s also had a great pre-season and comes into 2021 feeling very fresh. I was very impressed with how he played indoors last year, so that could help make him more confident on faster courts.
The conditions should suit him, and the fact that it’s a physical tournament should favor him as much as Novak, so I can’t say exactly why the split between them has been so uneven at this event.
When he is at his best on hard courts, he’s much more aggressive, taking the ball early on the return and coming to net more often, but winning a tournament like this can come down to a few points here and there, so all he may need, ultimately, is a little bit of luck!
Serena WILLIAMS (USA)
Like Djokovic, Serena has always performed so well in Australia, which makes it the tournament where she will likely have her best chance of winning that 24th major title. She doesn’t have as much pressure Down Under as she may at home in the States, or even at Wimbledon where everyone just expects her to win. She’s able to enjoy her time more here, looks very fit and hungry.
When I played Serena, I never got the sense that she was ever merely hoping to win; she just knew. In the last few finals, it seems more like she was hoping her opponent would give it to her in those tight moments, whereas in the past she was able to think, ‘I’m Serena and there’s no way I’m losing this.’ It’s normal for her to be going through this given her age, and I think the other players have greater belief when they play her now. There may be just that little bit of doubt holding her back right now; if she can get rid of that, there would be no stopping her.
Dominic THIEM (AUT)
Now that he is a Grand Slam champion, Dominic carries himself with a completely different level of confidence. He no longer feels the same pressure to win that first major title, because he’s already done it! Now he can relax and you can see the improvement he has made over the last 12 months. For sure, he’ll be very hungry to win another; I certainly expect it to happen for him on clay, but he clearly has chances on faster surfaces, well.
I saw him live in London for the ATP Finals, and he looks like a different player; that’s what a Grand Slam trophy can do to you. He’s much calmer between points, and that will make him super dangerous this year. He has that extra pressure off his shoulder and that can make him braver and more aggressive in matches. The adjustments he’s made to his game can make him as effective on hard courts as clay; he’s moving closer to the baseline more often, and he’ll definitely have to do that in Australia.
Naomi OSAKA (JPN)
Naomi obviously knows what it takes to win in Melbourne, so that’s always huge. She has looked strong through her first few matches in Melbourne, but she finds herself in a tough section of the draw from the very first match. I think how she plays against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova will be an interesting way to gauge her level going forward.
Her experience counts for so much at a major tournament, more so than anywhere else. It’s nice to win a tournament and come back as a defending or former champion, but at a Grand Slam, you can feel that extra 20-30% confidence.
Karolina PLISKOVA (CZE)
I’m very interested to see how her collaboration with Sascha Bajin will work out. I feel like we’ve spent so much time talking about why Pliskova hasn’t won a Grand Slam yet, but that’s only because I still believe she has everything it takes to win one.
Jannik SINNER (ITA)
I’m a huge fan of his game. He’s got so much potential, and I would not be surprised if he was ranked in the Top 10 by the end of this year. He has a big serve, moves incredibly well for a tall guy, and it just feels like he has it all.
He’s playing in what I think will be one of the best first round matches of the tournament against Denis Shapovalov, and whoever wins that one can really go far in the tournament.
Belinda BENCIC (SUI)
Belinda is one who is always capable of pulling off big upsets. She has the game for it. I got to see a lot of her off-season practice in Bratislava, and she was really putting in the hours necessary to play well. I spoke with her a few weeks ago and I felt she’s in the right frame of mind right now; she has that appreciation where she wants to compete, no matter what it takes. The last 12 months have been tough, but that was the absolute right attitude heading into a major tournament.
Denis SHAPOVALOV (CAN)
He has so much variety in his game that it all comes down to discipline. When he’s focused, he can be so dangerous, because of his timing and easy power off the ground. In hot conditions, he may not have to use the same energy as a player who has to muscle the ball more. He’s so fun to watch.
Maria SAKKARI (GRE)
When you talk about physical preparation, who is fitter than Maria? Her fitness level is frightening, and I wouldn’t want to watch her “Sparring with a Spartan” workouts if I was one of her opponents!
Matteo BERRETTINI (GRE)
I think we could see two Italians make deep runs at the Australian Open! As we saw at the US Open a couple of years ago, he’s another one with a big game, and that always pays off in Australia. When you’re physically strong and hit the ball hard, you’re in with a chance to surprise a top player. I can see him making the quarters and perhaps pull off an upset.