Week 1 of Australian Open 2021 went by in a flash. New names emerged, match points were saved and some of the game’s behemoths orchestrated masterful performances.
Here’s what we learned from the opening six days of AO21.
The top women’s stars couldn’t be stopped
The top three women’s seeds all made the fourth round — which didn’t happen at any of the Grand Slams in 2020 — leading to several blockbuster matchups. In this case, Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka are No.1, 2 and 3.
Serena Williams features too in the last 16.
Among the titanic tilts, Osaka will push for an 19th straight win after claiming an epic fourth-round contest over Garbine Muguruza.
Williams — seeking that 24th Grand Slam title — faces Aryna Sabalenka, who has won 18 of her last 19 matches.
And in another bottom half pairing, Halep gets a rematch with Iga Swiatek. Halep lost a mere one game to the Pole at the 2019 French Open, with Swiatek surrendering only three last October on the way to a maiden Grand Slam title in Paris.
Make some extra popcorn!
Defending a title isn't easy
The success of Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic might lead one to believe it’s easy to retain a Grand Slam title.
In truth it’s incredibly difficult, especially trying to do it for the first time.
Sofia Kenin found herself in that position and in the build-up last week talked about expecting to feel the nerves.
They indeed surfaced. The American was the lone top four seed to be eliminated, exiting 6-3 6-2 on Thursday to a player known for pulling off upsets, Estonian Kaia Kanepi.
“I felt like I obviously wasn't there,” said Kenin. “My head wasn't there. I'm not going to take any credit away from her. She played really well at those good points.
“I had chances. I just couldn't take it. I obviously know why because the nerves big-time got to me.”
Kenin is still around at Melbourne Park, though, competing at the Phillip Island Trophy.
How will Djokovic, the men’s defending champion, fare on Sunday against Milos Raonic following his abdominal injury?
The Aussies are box office
Only one Australian player, Barty, remains in contention in singles, but it sure was a fun ride watching players from the host nation — on three consecutive days in particular.
Alja Tomljanovic had Margaret Court Arena rocking last Wednesday when she led Halep 5-2 in the third set, only to see the 2018 finalist reel off five straight games. Meanwhile Nick Kyrgios fended off two match points to beat Ugo Humbert at his favoured John Cain Arena.
The next day, Thanasi Kokkinakis cast aside all his injury woes to stretch Stefanos Tsitsipas to five sets at Rod Laver Arena with good friend Kyrgios looking on.
Then on Friday, Kyrgios — at a heaving John Cain Arena with Kokkinakis in the stands — held a two-set advantage over reigning US Open champion Dominic Thiem. Not taking two break points to start the third, though, cost Kyrgios and Thiem prevailed in five.
Tough losses for Tomljanovic, Kokkinakis and Kyrgios but all gripping stuff.
Medvedev likes the sweet stuff
What a week for world No. 4 Daniil Medvedev.
He extended his winning streak to 17 matches, like Osaka, claimed his first fifth-set and celebrated a 25th birthday. Not bad, eh?
Medvedev didn’t party while in tournament mode but intends to get stuck into some cakes when his AO 21 concludes.
It turns out he loves a sugar fix.
“I just like sugar, let’s call it like this,” he said. “Sweet desserts, tiramisu, panna cotta, anything.
“I don't eat sugar during the tournament and I've got five cakes in my room. After the tournament it's going to be a big fight with the cakes.”
“Some people will hate me,” the 6-foot-6 (198cm) Russian added, for eating loads and not putting on even “a kilo."
If Medvedev wins his first Grand Slam title next weekend, how sweet it would be.
The hottest hand belongs to a qualifier
Even the keenest of tennis fans wouldn’t have predicted a fourth-round showing for Aslan Karatsev. Medvedev’s compatriot had never played in a Grand Slam main draw prior to this week and sits at 114 in the rankings.
But backed by an overflow of winners, Karatsev — who overcame a serious knee injury — hasn’t lost a set. The 27-year-old hit 122 winners in nine sets, including a remarkable 50 against world No.9 Diego Schwartzman on Friday.
He is catching the eye of his higher-profile ATP Cup teammate, Andrey Rublev, for one.
“He was always talented,” said Rublev. “He always had a really nice touch. When I was growing up he was always one of the best ones.”
Karatsev hopes for his hot spell to continue on Sunday against 20th-seed Felix Auger-Aliassime — who he defeated in their last meeting in 2019 in Rennes.
Venus' courage knows no bounds
It’s not always about winning Grand Slam titles or even matches. Making it through matches can be just as telling.
Bravo to ageless wonder Venus Williams for her determination to keep going despite injuring her right ankle late in the first set against Sara Errani — after she already had tape on her left knee.
Williams held herself up with her racquet to get her chair for treatment but didn’t retire, even though she struggled with her movement from then on and didn't win another game.
“No matter the outcome I always hold my head up high and I leave everything I have on the court,” was part of what Williams, 40, wrote on Instagram. “I never look back in regret because no matter the odds I give it all.”