Australian Open 2021: Key tennis storylines and matches to watch in Melbourne amid COVID-19 pandemic

After an eventful three weeks in Melbourne, filled with hard quarantines and some creative uses of hotel rooms, the 2021 Australian Open is almost here. While players continue to comply with the strict coronavirus protocols of the local Victorian government, the tournament could still give us the closest glimpse of on-court normalcy we've seen since the COVID-19 pandemic started with most of the familiar faces headlining the draws and fans -- yes, fans -- back in the stands.

So what are the matches you need to adjust your sleep schedule to watch? Who among the favorites has the toughest road to the final? What are the key storylines to keep an eye on? We answer all that and more.

Must-see first-round matches

No. 11 Denis Shapovalov vs. Jannik Sinner: We did a double take when we saw this matchup -- there are some really strong first-round matches, and then there's this. This is a blockbuster that frankly has no business being played this early, but you might want to start coming up with your best excuse for why you might need to start work late the morning after this one. These are two of the brightest young stars on the ATP Tour, who both made their first career major quarterfinal during the restart in 2020, meeting for the first time. So we're not overselling this when we say this could be an epic clash.

No. 10 Serena Williams vs. Laura Siegemund: Siegemund is coming off a career-best year, which included a quarterfinal appearance at the French Open and a doubles title at the US Open. Serena is, well, Serena. Williams has won both of their career meetings, including most recently in Auckland in 2020, but the 23-time Grand Slam champion on Friday withdrew from a tuneup tournament with a shoulder injury. The decision to recover before the year's first major is a smart call, but there will be added reason to see how Williams performs in the opening round.

No. 15 Pablo Carreno Busta vs. Kei Nishikori: Carreno Busta is fresh off a semifinal appearance at the US Open and a quarterfinal run at the French Open, and Nishikori is a former World No. 4 and US Open finalist. While Nishikori is also coming out of the hard quarantine protocol and tested positive for COVID-19 in August, these are two players who love the big stage and should provide quite the show as they did during their only career meeting, a five-set classic in the fourth round at the 2019 Australian Open.

No. 12 Victoria Azarenka vs. Jessica Pegula: On paper this might not sound that compelling, but hear us out. Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion and 2020 US Open finalist, is very much the favorite, but Pegula is more than capable of beating anyone on any given day. She reached the final in Auckland in 2020 and notched wins over Aryna Sabalenka, Jennifer Brady, Caroline Wozniacki and Amanda Anisimova last season. With Azarenka coming out of hard quarantine and likely not at her best, anything is possible.

No. 18 Grigor Dimitrov vs. Marin Cilic: Another one that seems almost unbelievable for the first round. Dimitrov is a three-time major semifinalist, and Cilic is the 2014 US Open champion (and former finalist at Wimbledon and the Australian Open). The tournament did neither of these accomplished veterans any favors, but here we are. Get your popcorn ready.

No. 18 Elise Mertens vs. Leylah Fernandez: Mertens is a former Australian Open semifinalist and made the quarters at the US Open in September. The 18-year-old Fernandez is the second-youngest player in the top 100 and made a splash during her first full season on tour in 2020 with a final appearance in Acapulco and a memorable third-round appearance in Paris. In the wild, unpredictable world of the WTA, this could make for an unforgettable match that could go anyone's way.

Toughest quarter of the men's draw: All three of the men's matches highlighted above amazingly come from the same quarter. And those somehow aren't the only big names in that section of the draw. Reigning US Open champion Dominic Thiem, No. 8 and 2020 French Open semifinalist Diego Schwartzman, No. 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime and Australian fan favorite Nick Kyrgios are all there too. Whoever escapes this quarter deserves some sort of prize.

Toughest quarter of the women's draw: The depth and parity in women's tennis makes this incredibly difficult, and there are two quarters that stand out here. So flip a coin if you're so inclined.

The second quarter includes Azarenka, reigning champion Sofia Kenin, 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, 2020 US Open semifinalist Jennifer Brady, 2020 French Open semifinalist Nadia Podoroska, teenage phenom Coco Gauff, perennial contender Elina Svitolina and rising star Maria Sakkari.

The bottom quarter features Williams, Wimbledon and French Open winner Simona Halep, reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek and the surging Aryna Sabalenka, who won her last three tournaments. See what we mean about how challenging both of these sections are?

Easiest path to the men's final: None of the favorites have exactly an easy path, but No. 2 Rafael Nadal might have a slightly less trying journey than the others. While No. 1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic would likely have to beat either No. 14 Milos Raonic or No. 17 Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, No. 6 Alexander Zverev in the quarters and 2020 runner-up Dominic Thiem in the semis, Nadal would potentially play No. 16 Fabio Fognini and No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas or No. 9 Matteo Berrettini in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively, followed by Daniil Medvedev in the semis. So, easy? No. Slightly easier? We think so.

Easiest path to the women's final: Dare we say, Ashleigh Barty? The world No. 1 and Australian star will undoubtedly be the emotional crowd favorite, and it seems like her chances of becoming the first countrywoman to win the title since 1978 might have just improved with her favorable draw. She will first face Danka Kovinic and wouldn't see a seeded player until the third round at the earliest. She would then potentially take on No. 16 Petra Martic in the fourth round and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova or No. 11 Belinda Bencic in the quarters. From there, it would get really interesting -- a 2020 semifinal rematch with Kenin.

Storylines to watch

The hard quarantine effect

Following positive tests upon arrival on three charter flights to Melbourne, 72 players had to spend 14 days in complete isolation in their hotel rooms. While they were provided a stationary bike and various other equipment to transform their spaces into makeshift gyms, it still wasn't exactly ideal conditions to prepare for the year's first Grand Slam.

The WTA created a separate lead-in tournament for impacted players in the hope of evening the playing field somewhat starting a few days after the other events to give more time for training. But players were still understandably concerned about risk of injury and rust from having so much time off the court.

"I know some people think it wouldn't make a difference for professional tennis players after 14 days in a room, but all the hard work that we have put in during the preseason so we can play the best we can at the Australian Open is actually gone," Bencic said during her quarantine. "They think we can then just go out there and play the same, but it's definitely not like this. Your muscles and the wrists and the joints and everything need training every day really to compete at the highest level.

"And for sure, especially with injuries, there's such a risk if we haven't been playing. It will be very tough to go out on the court and perform at 100%."

With so many big names involved, including Bencic, Azarenka, Nishikori, Stephens, Bianca Andreescu and Angelique Kerber, there will understandably be significant attention on how they perform despite the strange circumstances and who from the group, if anyone, can make a deep run in the tournament.

Serena's continued quest for 24

Williams last won a major title at the 2017 Australian Open, while pregnant with daughter Olympia, and hopes to make more history Down Under. The 39-year-old has been looking to tie Margaret Court's record of 24 since returning from childbirth and has played in four finals but hasn't yet been able to reach the milestone. So of course the question remains: Will this finally be the tournament in which she does it?

Williams made the semifinals of the US Open, before losing to Azarenka in three sets, and withdrew from the French Open ahead of her second-round match due to an Achilles injury, which she says has now finally recovered. Currently ranked No. 11, Williams defeated Naomi Osaka in an exhibition event last week and advanced to the semifinals of her lead-in event before withdrawing with a right shoulder injury. When asked after her third-round victory over Danielle Collins on Friday if she still thought her game was the best in the world, she didn't hesitate.

"I absolutely wouldn't be playing if I didn't think that," she said.

She remains one of the oddsmakers' favorites, trailing only Osaka and Barty on most sites, and has looked to be in top form and is clearly not lacking in confidence. While the status of her injury is unclear, the withdrawal is hopefully just a precautionary measure.

With the return of the crowd on hand to give her a boost at Melbourne Park, it seems like the stars might be aligning for Williams.

Novak Djokovic's latest blunder

Djokovic, the 17-time major champion, has made more headlines for his controversies recently than he has for his on-court play (and considering he's the No. 1 player, that's saying something). Following his ill-fated Adria Tour in June and his disqualification from the US Open after accidentally striking a line judge with a ball during his fourth-round match, Djokovic started 2021 by providing a list of demands to Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley in regard to the quarantine conditions of players. It was not well received by many in Australia, including Kyrgios, who called him a "tool," and his lack of awareness for the larger plight was heavily criticized.

So now, Djokovic enters his third consecutive major in a sea of controversy yet still the overwhelming favorite. He lost in the French Open final, but as the eight-time champion in Melbourne, if there's anywhere he should garner some positive attention, it's at the Australian Open.

"It felt like home definitely a few days ago when I stepped on the Rod Laver Arena for the first practice," he said earlier this week. "I definitely have a love affair with that court. Over the years, I've been blessed to experience lots of success. Each year that I come back, I think I'm even more confident and even more comfortable being on the Rod Laver Arena."

Now, how the crowd reacts to him might be a slightly different story. Speaking of...

The crowd!

Did we mention there will be ACTUAL FANS IN ATTENDANCE?

The Australian Open will allow up to 30,000 fans per day to attend the tournament during the first eight days of competition, split evenly between the day and night sessions, and 25,000 from the quarterfinals on. While that is only about 50% of the total in previous years, it still marks the first time large crowd numbers have been permitted at a tennis tournament since the pandemic began and the season resumed in August. The US Open didn't allow fans, and the French Open permitted about 1,000 daily.

"That means on Rod Laver Arena, as we get to the end of the tournament, we'll have an incredible atmosphere, not that different to the atmosphere we've seen in all the Opens in years past," said Martin Pakula, Victoria's Sports Minister, during a news conference last week. "It will not be the same as the last few years, but it will be the most significant international event with crowds that the world has seen for many, many months."

How will the players respond to having a crowd once again? Will the traditionally raucous Aussie crowd help propel some of its favorites to victory? At least it should provide a significantly better viewing experience for those watching from home.

The Barty Party is back

While some players were unable to train on court for two weeks due to protocols, others will be making their competitive return to tennis after nearly a year away. As the WTA and ATP temporarily adjusted their ranking systems to allow players the option to opt out of playing events if they felt unsafe, several players did just that, including Barty, Kyrgios and 2019 US Open champion Andreescu, who has been sidelined since the 2019 WTA Finals because of a knee injury and concerns regarding the virus.

While their rankings have gone largely untouched, what about the state of their games? Barty, who remains Australia's best hope for winning the home title, was impressive in her first matches back last week. Kyrgios was strong in his initial two before he was plagued by a knee injury in his third-round match. His signature demeanor and saltiness were still in midseason form. Andreescu withdrew from the tournament for isolated players to give herself more time to prepare, and it will be interesting to see how that decision works out for her.

"I've prepared in the best way that I could," she said on Friday. "I had a good five-month preseason, I would say. At this point, I'm just super grateful to be back, [and] healthy. I'm really looking forward to it."

Roger Federer, who also missed most of the 2020 season with a knee injury and subsequent surgeries, will not be making his eagerly anticipated return in Australia. Instead, the 20-time major champion says he is now targeting next month's Doha Open.

Francesca Jones continues to inspire

Born with three fingers and a thumb on each hand, three toes on her right foot and four on her left due to ectrodactyly ectodermal dysplasia syndrome, a rare genetic condition, Jones has continued to defy the odds and expectations throughout her young career -- and now she'll play in the main draw at a major for the first time after advancing through qualifying. The 20-year-old, who has undergone 10 surgeries throughout her life for her condition, was told by doctors as a child she had no chance of being a professional tennis player, and she hopes to inspire others facing adversity.

"I'd love to have a positive impact on people," she said after winning her third match in Dubai to clinch her spot in Australia. "I'd love people to take strength from my story. I've got so much more that I want to achieve, and this is very much the start of my journey."

Jones, who is currently ranked No. 245, will play Shelby Rogers in her first-round match.

Mixed doubles

After not being held at the US Open and the French Open in the fall due to COVID-19 protocols, mixed doubles will make its return in Melbourne. Only held at majors, the event frequently features star-studded pairings -- anyone remember Serena Williams and Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2019? -- and some incredibly entertaining tennis. While the prize money is relatively small ($114,000 U.S. split between the two winning players) and the matches are frequently held on outer courts with little fanfare, it's common to see some big names sign up if they get upset early in singles play and are looking to make their trip worthwhile.

There's been no official word yet on who is playing this year, but Barbora Krejčíková and Nikola Mektić are the defending champions, having defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Murray in the 2020 final. Venus Williams, Kyrgios, Anisimova, Swiatek and Jelena Ostapenko were among the stars who participated last year.