The 2020 ATP season was largely disheartening, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the entire world. The tour did eventually return in August but it felt like a compromise, with several players (including Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) missing from action and no crowds in the stands.
We did see some amazing moments in 2020, like Nadal winning his 20th Slam at Roland Garros, Dominic Thiem winning his first, Novak Djokovic continuing to dominate Melbourne and Andrey Rublev winning more titles than any other player. But the conversation in the community was more often around the virus than the tennis, which is not something anyone would want.
2021 is now upon us, carrying with it hopes of a much better year than what 2020 was. The Australian Open is on track to start in February, and most of the top players - except Roger Federer - are expected to take part.
So it's only fitting that we look ahead to the 2021 season and take stock of what to expect from the men's players.
1. Dominic Thiem's performance at the Slams
Dominic Thiem was a huge force at the Slams last season. After reaching multiple French Open finals in previous years, the Austrian finally managed to crack the other Majors too in 2020.
Thiem reached the final of the Australian Open, defeating Rafael Nadal in a scintillating quarterfinal that saw incredible shot-making and huge groundstrokes. He then won his first Grand Slam title at the US Open, in the process becoming the first player born in the 1990s to win a Major.
Even though Dominic Thiem was knocked out of Roland Garros by Diego Schwartzman in the quarters, it took an epic five-setter to down him.
With Thiem finally overcoming the mental block of winning a Slam, we can expect him to become an even stronger force at the showpiece events in 2021. Who knows, he may even become the first player ever to beat Rafael Nadal in a French Open final.
2. Roger Federer's return
Roger Federer has been missing in action ever since his semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open (not counting his Match For Africa appearance). After picking up an injury Down Under, Federer had to undergo a knee operation in February and then another one in June - which ruled him out of the rest of the season.
Now that the Swiss has withdrawn from the Australian Open too, his comeback is looking increasingly uncertain. For now he is slated to return some time in March, but the more realistic goal for him would be the grass season and Wimbledon.
In any case, it wouldn't be wise to count Roger Federer out yet. We all remember what he did in 2017, after all.
3. Can Andy Murray regain his past form?
Andy Murray almost quit the sport in 2019, before a hip surgery saved his career. We couldn't get to see him much in 2020 due to the pandemic, but Murray has been playing competitive tennis in the last few weeks.
The Scot won two matches, defeating British No. 1 Dan Evans in one of them, at the Battle of the Brits Premiere League of Tennis. That's an encouraging sign for Murray, who has largely been irrelevant since 2017 due to his failing hip.
2021 will be a crucial year for the 33-year-old, as it would be his first full season after his surgery in 2019.
4. Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer: Who will reach 21 first?
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are tied at 20 Grand Slams apiece right now. As much as their fans would have been looking forward to a dream Australian Open final between Federer and Nadal to see who would reach 21 first, Federer's withdrawal has given Nadal an edge in the battle.
With the Spaniard not showing any drop in form over the last couple of months, he'll be a huge favorite at the French Open. And he wouldn't mind another Slam or two here or there either, which could boost his tally to 22 or even 23 Slams by the end of next year.
Federer of course would be targeting Wimbledon as his best chance to win another Slam. But given the present scenario, it's hard to imagine the Swiss beating Nadal in this race.
5. How many Slams will Novak Djokovic win?
Novak Djokovic is currently at 17 Slams, three fewer than both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. He'll be one of the top contenders going into the Australian Open, but it won't be easy with Nadal still playing well and the Next Gen players increasing their impact with each passing year.
Dominic Thiem in particular will be a big threat given his recent exploits. The Austrian was numerically the best Slam player of 2020, and would be itching to go one better than his runner-up finish in Melbourne last year.
Novak Djokovic would, however, be an overwhelming favorite at Wimbledon, and would also have a good shot at the US Open. If he somehow manages to win three Slams this year, and neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer wins the fourth, then all three would be tied at 20 Majors each.
Realistically speaking the Serb should be expected to win a Slam or two, and Nadal at least one, which would put the Spaniard at the top of the list by the end of 2021. Unless, of course, Roger Federer decides that he wants to have a say in the matter too.Published 14 Jan 2021, 15:14 IST