The Australian Open is only two days old, and yet the central overarching theme of this tournament is plainly apparent.
After quarantines and lockdowns and various disruptions in Melbourne, some players haven’t been able to successfully manage these uncommon plot twists, which mark a departure from a normal rhythm and a normal tennis existence. Pandemic tennis is its own beast. Some will find the path through the forest of complications, others won’t.
Victoria Azarenka didn’t lose to Jessica Pegula solely because of the pandemic’s complications. She had some breathing problems during her match and needed off-court evaluation. Her body didn’t cooperate, so it’s not as though her loss was solely a product of deficient tennis. Deficient health was involved. Nevertheless, it does remain that Azarenka had a 5-2 lead in the first set and couldn’t protect it. She might have been able to escape had she not faltered… and Pegula deserves credit for fighting back and not accepting an early flight out of Australia.
Elsewhere on Day 2 of the Australian Open, other notable names tumbled out of the tournament in Round 1: Maria Sakkari, Jo Konta (also due to physical problems more than tennis), Roberto Bautista-Agut, David Goffin, and Petra Martic.
The tournament feels markedly volatile — primarily because of the rare circumstances relative to this specific event, but also because players had a very long offseason (minus the few men who attended the ATP Finals) and are trying to rev up the engines again. To be more precise, the lockdowns in Australia aren’t the only source or creator of unpredictability. The lack of a full tour season in 2020 meant that players didn’t enter 2021 on the heels of a normal progression through the calendar. Everything is out of alignment.
This brings us back to the heart of the discussion: In a tournament with so much uncertainty and so many unknowns, will the players who are considered to be the elites manage to stay above the fray and reestablish their familiarly high standard, or will they also fall victim to the forces at work in Melbourne?
Azarenka was predicted by many to be a semifinalist or better at this tournament. Bautista-Agut figured to meet Andrey Rublev in the Round of 16. Maria Sakkari was viewed as a player who could go on a deep run (and one wonders when she will eventually do that at a future major). Yet, they’re all out after Day 2 of the fortnight.
Is this parade of mayhem going to claim the best of the best, or will the people we expect to rise to the top of the sport manage to maintain their supremacy?
That is the question of the moment in Melbourne Park, and it will be fascinating to see how these questions are answered over the next 12 days.