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Tennis at the majors in 2021: abnormal becomes less abnormal

Matt Zemek

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The majors are over for 2020. After the end of Roland Garros this past weekend – one month later than the majors usually end in a typical year (mid-September at the U.S. Open) – it’s natural to look ahead to the crown jewel tournaments for 2021.

You might have seen me tweet this over the past few weeks, but I’ll say it again here: In a pandemic year, with a long hiatus (over five months), the need for a year-end championship is nonexistent. There is no year-end champion as far as I’m concerned. There is no year-end No. 1 in my opinion. A year of tennis has not been played; this is more like a random assortment of tournaments, not a regular progression of continuous tour events. This is not a true tennis season with a natural beginning and end. This year, tennis has witnessed a few abrupt and dramatic adjustments in response to a highly disruptive event.

This is why I will assign no profound significance to the upcoming year-end championship tournaments on both tours. Others can assign meaning to those events, but I won’t.

From my vantage point, the 2021 majors – beginning with the Australian Open – are my next big point of focus in tennis.

A starting point for this discussion is the nature of tennis in 2021. While the sport will have had a lot more time to adjust to the circumstances brought about by a pandemic, it remains that few fans are going to be allowed to attend. Major tournaments are still not going to have large crowds of fans flocking to all the courts, both the big stadiums and the smaller side courts. Players are still going to compete in comparatively quiet environments. They will still have to find energy and clarity from within. They won’t be able to ride the energy of the crowd. This backdrop for major-tournament matches will remain abnormal.

However, 2021 will provide a few things 2020 didn’t: a more reliable timetable and a more familiar playing rhythm.

This isn’t a guarantee, but there’s a decent chance it will happen: Tournaments in 2021 – though not having (many) fans – will probably occur with a steadiness and regularity approaching a normal year (2019). There will be Indian Wells and Miami. There will be Monte Carlo and Madrid. There will be Queens, Canada, Wimbledon and Shanghai. When players arrive at the majors, they will arrive after having played (or at least considering the possibility of playing) at the recognizable warm-up or lead-in events preceding those majors. Every chance of a tournament, whether major or minor, there will be odds and predictions available to the public. It might take a bit of digging around to find a site that will release early odds, but this section on tennis betting at Sports Betting Dime should be updated often to reflect the availability of odds. There are still a few smaller tournaments that are scheduled to take place in the following few months, so preview odds will be released as it gets closer to those events.

There won’t be the hastily arranged U.S.-to-French Open transition we just saw over the past several weeks. The calendar will look a lot more normal, even if tournaments still won’t be played before large crowds.

In the midst of continued abnormality, there will be less abnormality.

Another likely aspect of 2021 major-tournament tennis is that while the Australian Open will occur with few (if any) fans, players will know when to be ready for the fortnight in Melbourne. This will mark a departure from 2020, in which players didn’t really know in early July when tennis would resume. Athletes were in limbo for a large portion of the pandemic. Total uncertainty governed the situation for months. Tennis pros might have had a long break to rest, but they didn’t know when that break was going to end; the uncertainty represented a measure of mental strain – not the same strain of NBA players living in a bubble for nearly three whole months, but it still represented some stress on the mind of an athlete who was not used to existing in isolation for a prolonged period of time.

What will liberate tennis players to a degree in 2021 is that they won’t linger in the uncertainty which marked the return to tennis in late summer of 2020. They will know that they will have an offseason with a length close to what they normally experience. They will know the season will begin in early January in Australia and New Zealand (and the other normal tour stops). When they get to Roland Garros in late May (only seven months away!), they will have done so after going through Monte Carlo and Madrid in addition to Rome. When the pros get to Wimbledon next year, they will have done so after going to Queens, Eastbourne, and Halle. When they go to New York in 2021, they will go to Canada and Cincinnati first. These aren’t guarantees, but they are likelihoods. A year of preparation will enable the tournaments shut out of the 2020 calendar to bring back their tournaments for 2021.

Players might not play before fans, but they will have a calendar which more closely resembles a normal one. Beyond prognostications, the bigger story will be the return of the different surface-specific tennis seasons. Grass – excluded from the 2020 adjusted schedule – should return. A full clay season in spring could reenter our lives. It won’t feel fully normal, but it will feel less abnormal.

The less abnormal the conditions, the more I can feel comfortable in assessing where players truly stand in the competitive pecking order. The more I can assess where players stand, the more it will feel like a full season in which tour events build off and flow from each other. The more it feels like a full season, the more tennis can emerge from pandemic uncertainty at the majors in 2021. The more tennis emergences from pandemic uncertainty in 2021, the more we can realistically hope for some semblance of life as we once knew it in 2022.

It’s too early for this much optimism in the midst of a dark 2020… but I can see optimism from my house. It is, at least, on the radar screen, and for very small blessings such as that, we can only be thankful as we begin to contemplate what major tennis tournaments are going to feel like in 2021.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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