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AO 2021 qualifying: Players to watch

  • Matt Trollope

For the first time, the Australian Open qualifying events will not be contested on Aussie soil.

Instead, as the tennis world continues to adapt to life in the time of COVID-19, the men will play at Doha’s Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in Qatar, while the women head to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium and Complex in the UAE.

These qualifying tournaments will be staged simultaneously on 10-13 January, with the 16 successful qualifiers from each event securing their seat on a flight to Melbourne.

AO 2021 qualifying: Day 1 order of play
AO 2021 qualifying: Women's singles draw
AO 2021 qualifying: Men's singles draw

There they will feature in the main draw at AO 2021 on 8-21 February.

Among the 128-player fields are the following notable names aiming to cement their spot…

Eugenie Bouchard

The Canadian is the highest-profile player in the qualifying field, a former world No.5 who remains among the top 10 most-followed tennis players on social media. After falling as low as world No.332 in March 2020, Bouchard improved her ranking to 141st by season’s end after a string of impressive results when the sport resumed in August, including a quarterfinal in Prague and final in Istanbul – her first WTA final in almost five years – before a third-round finish at Roland Garros. Bouchard is one of three former world No.5s to contest AO 2021 qualifying, the others being Sara Errani and Tommy Robredo. 

Lorenzo Musetti

The former world No.1 junior and AO 2019 boys’ singles champion transitioned beautifully to the professional tour in 2020, now within striking distance of the ATP top 100 after beginning the year at No.364. He demonstrated excellent clay-court form when tennis returned in August; the 18-year-old Italian won 20 of his 26 matches on the surface in a two-month span. His biggest highlight came at the Rome Masters, where as a qualifier he stunned Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori to reach the last 16.

Tsvetana Pironkova

Following a three-year absence due to motherhood, the Bulgarian made an impactful return to tennis in 2020, advancing to the quarterfinals of the US Open – the very first event of her comeback – after upsetting seeds Garbine Muguruza and Donna Vekic. It took Serena Williams three sets to end her inspiring run. The 33-year-old later reached the third round at Roland Garros to improve her ranking to No.133. Pironkova, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2010, has a profile among Aussie tennis fans after storming to the Sydney International title as a qualifier in 2014.

Carlos Alcaraz

The highly-rated Spanish prospect is coached by former world No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero and was a rapid improver on tour last year. Although competitive opportunities were restricted due to COVID-19, Alcaraz managed to win 39 of 46 matches and boost his ranking from No.492 to No.144. He began 2020 with a 14-match winning streak on the ITF Futures tour, turned heads after upsetting world No.41 Albert Ramos Vinolas at the ATP 500 event in Rio (while 16 years old), and later in the season won three ATP Challenger titles. Now 17, he was named the ATP’s Newcomer of the Year in 2020.

Mayar Sherif

Sherif made history at Roland Garros in 2020 by qualifying for the tournament, becoming the first Egyptian woman to contest the main draw at a Grand Slam event. There, she stretched No.2 seed Karolina Pliskova to three sets on Court Philippe Chatrier. It was one of many highlights in a stellar season for the 24-year-old, who went 28-12 and won the ITF 100K event in Charleston to help boost her ranking inside the top 130. Her growing profile in her home country saw her ink several new sponsorship deals. 

Aslan Karatsev

The late-blooming Russian was one of the in-form players of 2020, rising almost 200 places to a career-high ranking of No.111 in November. Karatsev, 27, thrived on the ATP Challenger circuit, reaching three straight Challenger finals in the Czech Republic in August (winning two) and later in the season qualifying for the main draw of ATP Tour events in Nur-Sultan and Sofia after reaching the second round of the ATP 500 tournament in St Petersburg. He finished the season with a 36-11 record.

Catherine McNally

After a successful junior career, McNally’s all-court talent became apparent to a wider audience when she stretched Serena Williams to three sets in an entertaining second-round clash at the 2019 US Open. She followed that up by qualifying for AO 2020 and ousting former world No.4 Sam Stosur in the first round, and later in 2020 advanced to the third round of the US Open. Her big serve, heavy groundstrokes and abilities in the forecourt have also translated well to doubles, where she has formed a productive partnership with Coco Gauff. Together the teenagers have won two WTA titles, both in 2019.

Brandon Nakashima

Korda is not the youngest American in the field – that honour goes to teenager Brandon Nakashima, who also closed 2020 with a Challenger title thanks to his victory in Orlando. It was one many impressive results last year for the 19-year-old, who also reached the quarterfinals of the ATP Delray Beach event, compiled a win-loss record of 28-14, and improved his ranking from No.367 to No.166.