Who will use AO2021 as a stepping stone?

  • Gillian Tan

A strong showing during the Australian summer of tennis has long proven a springboard for success during the remainder of the season, which spans the calendar year.

As players prepare to jet across the globe with stops in Paris, London, New York – home of the three other Grand Slams – and dozens of other cities, including Tokyo for the Olympics, here are four women and four men who can utilise momentum gained in Melbourne to make an impact in 2021.

Aryna Sabalenka

The powerful Belarusian blasted her way to the last 16 for the first time in Melbourne. It’s only the second time she has reached the fourth round at a major since the US Open in 2018, and the 22-year-old, already at a career-high ranking of no.7, will seek to break higher ground as the year rolls on.

Sabalenka has bolstered her confidence after taking a set off Serena Williams, a player who inspired her. The right-hander began approaching majors like any other tournament and, with a more carefree mentality to ease the pressure, it's something she’ll seek to replicate going forward.

She won her second women’s doubles major title with Elise Mertens on Friday, but might need to pause her doubles efforts at Grand Slams to focus on singles.

Jessica Pegula

The unheralded American was ranked no.61 entering AO 2021 - her ninth Grand Slam main draw – and made a surprising run to the quarterfinals. En route, she toppled two-time champion Victoria Azarenka, 2011 US Open winner Sam Stosur and former world no.10 Kiki Mladenovic in straight sets.

With her victory over fifth seed Elina Svitolina, Pegula scored her career-first top 10 win and then also snatched a set in her quarterfinal clash with finalist Jennifer Brady. The key to success, according to her coach David Witt, is a newfound self-belief.

The 26 year-old echoed the sentiment: “I think the big takeaway is that I've proved that I have the level to play with the top players now, which is such a stepping stone. I just proved that I'm sustaining that level right now ... that's something I have to take moving forward.”

Karolina Muchova

The affable Czech achieved her goal of reaching a career-first Grand Slam semifinal in Melbourne, and if what we’ve seen is a sign of what’s to come, it won’t be her last.

Muchova, seeded 25th, claimed the scalps of sixth seed Karolina Pliskova and 18th seed Elise Mertens in straight sets before ousting world no.1 Ash Barty in a memorable three-set comeback. The hard-hitting right hander then nearly pulled off similar heroics against Brady, saving four match points, before the American wrestled away a place in the women’s singles final.

The 24-year-old was able to produce stellar results even with her coach absent from Melbourne due to COVID-19. Her Australian Open victories gave her an understanding that she’s able to hang tough with top players, and she’ll eye ways to improve, including potentially more aggressive starts.

F_MUCHOVA_Day 11_18022021_04
Karolina Muchova showed plenty of fight to upset Ash Barty

Garbine Muguruza

Despite failing to convert two match points against eventual champion Osaka in their fourth-round encounter, the two-time Grand Slam champion departed Melbourne upbeat.

“I left the court with a good feeling, a very good feeling of this tournament in general,” said Muguruza after the loss. “I think I’m on the right path. I’m disappointed right now but excited also how I'm feeling on the court, how my tennis is going,” she added.

The Spaniard was buoyed by a run to the finals of the Yarra Valley Classic the week before, when she didn’t lose more than two games per set in wins over accomplished players including Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sofia Kenin and Marketa Vondrousova. With Conchita Martinez as her coach, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the 27-year-old former Roland Garros and Wimbledon champion playing herself deep into the second weeks of majors to hunt down a third Grand Slam title.

Garbine Muguruza held match points against Naomi Osaka

Aslan Karatsev

Never in the Open Era had a men’s singles contender reached the final four on his Grand Slam debut. That was, until the Russian qualifier – ranked No.114 before this week - burst onto the scene and dispatched eighth seed Diego Schwartzman, 20th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and 18th seed Grigor Dimitrov in a historic run, during which he contested – and won – his first five setter.

Also astounding is the fact that it was his first time contesting a main draw of a major, after falling in nine prior attempts at qualifying. Karatsev’s string of wins proved that he’s able to compete with the best. Helpfully, he’s projected to crack the top 50, earning him the opportunity to do so.

“He’s going to play a lot of tournaments now without any pressure for the remainder of the 2021 season in terms of getting into the main draws, and a big pay cheque will also be a huge boost for him,” Russian legend Yevgeny Kafelnikov said in an interview with the ATP. That it will – Karatsev earned $A850,000 ($US666,000) at the Australian Open, more than his total career winnings of approximately $US618,000.

Casper Ruud

Norway’s Casper Ruud became something of a national hero, and only the second man from his nation to reach the final 16 of a Grand Slam – the first being his father, who achieved the feat in Melbourne in 1997. Despite bowing out with an abdominal injury, the 22-year-old was relieved and delighted to have made it past the round of 32 after losing a hat-trick of times at that stage at other majors, albeit in expected losses to Roger Federer, Matteo Berrettini and Dominic Thiem.

“I’m happy to have broken the barrier,” said Ruud, who was seeded 24th and will be able to avoid top seeds as his ranking climbs. There’s no doubt both Ruuds will celebrate if the talented youngster is able to reach or better his father’s result by getting to the quarterfinals of a major. His next best chance is Roland Garros, especially because his best results – including a maiden title in Buenos Aires in 2020 - have come on clay.

Regardless, he now backs himself on faster surfaces. “I've become more comfortable on the hard court. For a guy who plays maybe better on clay, it's not impossible to do well on hard courts either,” he said, referring to Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem’s Slam success away from Paris.

Matteo Berrettini

The big-hitting Italian lived up to his ninth seeding by reaching the fourth round, a career-best showing in Melbourne, before his campaign was prematurely ended by an abdominal injury.

But a straight-sets victory over Dominic Thiem during the ATP Cup and his three-tiebreak-sets victory over Karen Khachanov in the round of 32 should arm Berrettini with momentum heading into the rest of 2021.

Outside a run to the US Open fourth round, where he was upset by Andrey Rublev, the 24-year-old crashed out during the first week of AO 2020 and Roland Garros 2020, a season in which he suffered upsets at the hands of Marcos Giron, Ruud and Reilly Opelka. His results in Australia indicate that he’s been able to shake off that slump.

F_Berrettini_Day 6 _13022021_02
Matteo Berrettini's tournament ended with an injury

Felix Auger-Aliassime

The Canadian sensation made a mark in Melbourne, triumphing over 11th seed Denis Shapovalov, his friend and rival, in straight sets to make his second consecutive fourth round of a major and his first round of 16 at the Australian Open.

The 20-year-old contested his first-ever five setter, in which he held a two sets to love lead over Karatsev, but hopes to take lessons from that loss. “I’ll just try to learn from that and be better next time,” said the right-hander, who reiterated his passion for the sport burns brightly.

“Love for the sport gets me going in tough moments, gets me up when there [are] hard practices to do and, it really keeps me going.” Auger-Aliassime also reached the final of the Murray River Open, coming up short in his sneveth ATP Tour final. But after an explosive start to the year, the young gun may finally break that drought.