2021 Tennis Preview: COVID-19 questions key; Djokovic, Nadal eye records

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
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When the 2020 men’s tennis season ended at the ATP Finals, Rafael Nadal captured a common sentiment that still holds true as the 2021 tennis season is set to begin this week.

“The world is suffering a lot, so we are very lucky that we can play tennis,” Nadal said in London in November. “That’s the real feeling that I have.”

After an off-and-on, pandemic-altered year for the sport, coronavirus questions and an ever-evolving calendar still will be key parts of the conversation as things get going with main-draw action Wednesday at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open, where Sofia Kenin leads the field, and Thursday at the ATP’s Delray Beach Open, where last year’s champion, Reilly Opelka, withdrew, citing an injured knee.

Opelka joined several players – a group that includes Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic – in pulling out of the hard-court tournament held last February and pushed to early January this time as part of a shuffling on both professional tours.

The scheduling changes include the start of the year’s first major championship, the Australian Open, delayed three weeks to Feb. 8, and the joint event played at Indian Wells, California – canceled last year because of the COVID-19 outbreak – giving up its usual March dates without a new spot for it on the schedule as of now.

There are some significant milestones in the offing for stars such as Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams in 2021.

Nadal can break a tie with Roger Federer for the most Grand Slam singles titles for a man after matching him with No. 20 at the French Open in October; by March, Djokovic can surpass Federer’s record for most weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings; Williams is one Slam singles trophy away from No. 24, which would equal Margaret Court for the most in the sport’s history.

Other tennis storylines in 2021:

FEDERER’S RETURN

More than 12 months will have passed between matches for the 39-year-old Federer by the time he returns from two operations on his right knee. Federer’s agent told The Associated Press he is aiming for late February after missing the Australian Open for the first time since his main-draw debut in 2000.

THE SLAMS

There were only three Slams in 2020, because the All England Club canceled Wimbledon for the first time since World War II. As of now, Wimbledon is scheduled for its usual place on the calendar, beginning June 28. The French Open’s start got shifted from May to September last year and the number of fans was severely restricted; as of now, it is slotted for May 23. For the Australian Open, there are lingering questions about flights, hotels and quarantine plans for players and their personnel. “I’m not that excited, to be honest. Like, I don’t want to stay in my room for 19 hours,” the 39th-ranked Opelka said. “You know, I get it; we have to do it. But I’m not one bit excited.”

TOKYO OLYMPICS

The 2020 Olympics, as they’ll still be called, are scheduled to start in July, and two tennis players representing Japan could be breakout stars: AP Female Athlete of the Year Naomi Osaka and Nishikori. “The Olympics are a special time when the world comes together to celebrate sports. I am looking forward most to being with the athletes that had waited and trained for over 10 years, for celebrating a very hard year (2020), and having that happen in Japan makes it that much more special,” Osaka wrote in an email interview. “It’s a special and beautiful country filled with culture, history and beauty. I cannot be more excited.”

CROWDED COMPETITION

Should be fascinating to watch the young women who recently won Grand Slam titles compete for more. That includes No. 1 Ash Barty, who is 24; No. 3 Osaka, 23; No. 4 Kenin, 21; No. 7 Bianca Andreescu, 20; No. 17 Iga Swiatek, 19.

WHO’S GOT NEXT?

There appear to be more legitimate candidates for first-time major champions in men’s tennis than there have been in years. With Dominic Thiem joining the club last year at the no-spectator U.S. Open, who will join him? Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev all appear capable.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”

Australia beats Croatia 2-1 to reach Davis Cup final

Day Four - Davis Cup Finals 2022
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MALAGA, Spain – Australia had to fight back twice to reach its first Davis Cup final in 19 years after beating Croatia 2-1.

Lleyton Hewitt’s team recovered from losing the first singles. Then the Australian doubles pair battled back from a set down in the decider.

Australia won its 28th and last title in 2003. It has finally got back to the final.

“I am so proud. Australia has a really rich history in this competition,” said Hewitt, who played a record 43 Davis Cup ties for Australia from 1999-2018.

“We have been fortunate to win it all on a number of occasions a long time ago. And I know what it meant to me as a player to play a final, and I am glad these guys can play it.”

Borna Coric put Croatia ahead by beating Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-4, 6-3, but Alex de Minaur leveled after defeating Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-2 to send it to the doubles.

Jordan Thompson and Max Purcell then secured the semifinal win against Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic by 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-4.

“This is what this team is about, that never-say-die attitude,” De Minaur said.

Canada will face Italy on Saturday in the other semifinal.

In the opener, Kokkinakis struck 11 aces, but Coric was able to break him once in each set.

“On my serve, I felt like it was an ace or he put it back on my toes,” Kokkinakis said.

Cilic, who was on the Croatia team that won the title in 2018, committed 10 double faults. That erratic serve helped De Minaur break Cilic four times and level his head-to-head record with the former U.S Open winner at two wins each.

Thompson and Purcell bettered the more experienced pair of Mektic and Pavic, both ranked in the top 10 in doubles. Thompson and Purcell combined for 13 aces, broke the Croats twice, and never dropped a service game to come back after losing the first-set tiebreaker.

Two-time winner Croatia was the runner-up last year.

“It proved too difficult on the court today,” Cilic said. “(But) for us it has been a great year again after the finals last year to reach the semis.”

The final is on Sunday on the indoor court in Malaga.