Tennis in 2021: Covid-19 chaos, thwarted quests and Radacanu’s rise

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The 2021 tennis season began with Covid-19 chaos down under. A convoy of jets was specially chartered to transport all the players and coaches to Melbourne. Covid-19 cases onboard several of the flights led to ultra-strict fourteen-day quarantines. Photos soon flooded onto social media. Dodgy hotel food. Improvised workouts. Various flora and fauna in hotel bedrooms. 

With the return of fans for the first time since the pandemic began, the prospect of a post-Covid-19 utopia was briefly realised during an enthralling five-set thriller between home favourite Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem.

It was played in an electric atmosphere, and reminded us of what we had been missing. Hours later, a mini-lockdown in Melbourne, which completely emptied the stadiums, brought us back to reality with a silent but deadly bump. 

Nevertheless, the Australian Open proved to be a hotbed for some of the best women’s matches of the season, including a titanic battle between superstars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. 

After her loss to Osaka, the eventual champion, Serena offered a wave to the crowd – a wave which was interpreted by many as a final wave goodbye to Melbourne.

The Australian Open proved to be a hotbed for some of the best women’s matches of the season

On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic’s ninth Australian Open title marked the first leg of his quest to achieve the calendar Grand Slam, a quest that would become the defining narrative of men’s tennis this season.

During a delayed Roland Garros, there was a government-imposed curfew of 11pm during the first edition of the tournament where night matches were scheduled. At the height of a gruelling semi-final contest between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the clock ticked past 11pm. The crowd held its breath.

President Emmanuel Macron himself made an exemption to the curfew so that the throngs of screaming Parisians could stay to watch the rest of the match. In the best men’s match of the season, Djokovic brutally wore down Nadal, who was a broken man by the end of the contest. In a Herculean effort, Djokovic would then come back to win the final from two sets to love down against Stefanos Tsitsipas. 

This tournament was overshadowed, however, by the controversy surrounding Osaka’s withdrawal. Prior to the tournament, Osaka announced that she would not be doing any press conferences, citing her mental health.

After she was threatened with disqualification by the Grand Slam organisers, Osaka withdrew from the tournament. Following this controversy, Osaka would take an extended break from tennis, playing only sporadically during the rest of the season.

For the first time in two years, players stepped – or, more accurately, slipped – onto the hallowed grass of Wimbledon. Some of the slipping and sliding was almost slapstick comedy.

Some of the slipping and sliding, however, was far more dangerous. Serena Williams has not played a tennis match since she injured her right leg when she fell heavily on the slick turf.

In stark contrast, the Aussie Ash Barty glided over the grass like a professional ice skater. Completing her remarkable rise to the top of the game, Barty achieved a childhood dream in winning Wimbledon for the first time.

A new global superstar was born.

Djokovic’s relentless quest towards history also continued at SW19. In the final, he proved an indestructible brick wall against the Italian sledgehammer Matteo Berrittini, who could still celebrate his nation winning the Euros at Wembley a few hours later.

The US Open was a storm of a tournament in more ways than one. Aside from some electric tennis matches, New York was experiencing the aftereffects of Storm Ida. At one point, rain even started coming through the newly installed roof of the Louis Armstrong stadium.

It was in this apocalyptic atmosphere that the burden of history finally took its toll on Djokovic, who limply fell to defeat against Daniil Medvedev in the final.

The story of the tournament, however, was Emma Radacanu. Need I say more? What has not already been said about her remarkable achievement? A new global superstar was born.

The last few months of the tennis season were overshadowed by the accusations of sexual assault made by the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai against the former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli.

After these accusations were quickly censored by Chinese authorities, Shaui disappeared from public life for several weeks, raising concerns about her safety. Shaui has subsequently appeared in several interviews, including one in which she denied making the accusation of sexual assault. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) remains concerned, however, that she is still being censored. 

Overshadowed by this deeply disturbing and still ongoing situation, the 2021 season finally reached its conclusion.

This time last year, in my review of the 2020 season, I claimed that it would be difficult for there to be a weirder year than 2020. Well, 2021 certainly came close.

Image: dackelprincess via flickr

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