Poised for a major breakthrough at AO 2021?

  • Matt Trollope

Three new Grand Slam champions – Sofia Kenin, Dominic Thiem and Iga Swiatek – emerged in 2020.

And the prospect of more first-time major winners in the near future seems likely, with Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – who have dominated at the Slams – closer to the end of their glittering careers than the beginning.

Will a new major champion be crowned at AO 2021?

We profile five stars best placed to take that next step – and who are hungry to do so.

Daniil Medvedev

Medvedev came within a few games of claiming the US Open 2019 title before falling to Nadal in a five-set final.

He will enter 2021 with soaring confidence after winning his final 10 matches of 2020 to collect the Paris Masters and ATP Finals trophies, a run that included seven victories over top-10 opponents.

Among the strongest players on hard courts, Medvedev’s tactical astuteness, consistency and movement have earned him recent wins over major champs Djokovic, Nadal and Thiem.

Medvedev already owns three ATP Masters titles; the next step is translating his winning ways to the best-of-five format at Slams, at which he has passed the fourth round just twice.

The world No.4 backed up his 2019 final run in New York with a return to the semifinals in 2020.

Karolina Pliskova

Another player who has come incredibly close to major success is sixth-ranked Pliskova.

A world No.1 in 2017 and riding a streak of more than 200 consecutive weeks inside the top 10, she possesses the credentials of a Slam winner.

The closest she got was in 2016; she defeated Venus and Serena Williams to reach the US Open final and led Angelique Kerber 3-1 in the final set, until Kerber rebounded to end her 11-match winning streak.

Karolina Pliskova was a runner-up at the 2016 US Open to Angelique Kerber.
Karolina Pliskova (R) watches on as Angelique Kerber holds the champion's trophy after winning their US Open 2016 final in three sets. (Getty Images)

A magnificently clean ball-striker who owns 16 WTA titles, Pliskova has reached a further two Grand Slam semifinals – including at AO 2019 – and four quarterfinals. 

Given her hard-court proficiency, another deep run at Melbourne Park is very much possible.

Alexander Zverev

Like Medvedev and Pliskova, Zverev is a US Open finalist who came within a whisker of winning it, while producing tour-level results yet to be matched at the majors.

Although long criticised for this – his best ATP results include three Masters titles and the 2018 ATP Finals crown – the German changed that narrative in 2020.

Zverev advanced to his first major semifinal at the Australian Open before progressing a step further at the US Open.

He even served for the title at 5-3 up in the fifth set of a tense, emotionally-draining final at Flushing Meadows before Thiem prevailed 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6(6).

“Man this is tough,” a shattered Zverev said through tears during the trophy presentation. “I wish one day that I can bring the trophy home.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas

AO 2019 was where Tsitsipas broke through; he stunned Federer in a compelling fourth-round night match at Rod Laver Arena.

He went on to reach the semifinals – where Rafael Nadal dealt him a tennis lesson – and reached the same stage at Roland Garros in 2020. 

Encouragingly, he performed far more competitively there, stretching Djokovic to five sets.

Entrenched in the top 10 for almost two years, the talented Greek has used his flowing all-court game to unseat every member of the current top five – including Nadal, Djokovic and Federer – in the past two seasons.

He also captured the ATP Finals title in 2019, the most prestigious trophy outside of the Grand Slams.

Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates his victory at the 2019 ATP Finals.
Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates his victory at the 2019 ATP Finals. (Getty Images)

Elina Svitolina

Like Tsitsipas, Svitolina has appeared in two major semifinals without going further.

Her grit, athleticism and consistency have pushed her as high as world No.3 and delivered her 15 WTA titles from 18 finals – a staggering finals’ winning percentage of 83.3%.

Yet she acknowledged a mental block at Slams, after 131st-ranked qualifier Nadia Podoroska stunned her in this year’s Roland Garros quarterfinals.

“I was not 100 per cent mentally on it today, and that was really disappointing,” she said. “I have to break down everything in the small details to try to find out why this came. Especially in this moment when it's a quarterfinal, of course it's very upsetting for me and it's very tough moment.”

Svitolina is, however, trending in the right direction; until 2019 the Ukrainian had not been beyond the last eight but that season reached back-to-back major semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open.