Are Stefanos and Naomi the new faces of tennis?

The Australian Open falls at the start of the ATP calendar, giving fresh players new opportunities to start the year off successfully.

In years gone by, the likes of Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have pounced on the chance, snatching Aussie crowns with glee as they settled their spot up the top of the world rankings. But the disrupted 2021 version of the Grand Slam has shown some cracks in the throne of tennis’ biggest names. With only a handful of matches left, emerging talent has the potential to throw the tennis world into chaos.

Naomi Osaka has been a whirlwind ever since she burst onto the scene. Winning a US Open against the hometown favourite in Serena Williams made sure she received plenty of attention rapidly. Following it up with the 2019 Australian Open confirmed the Japanese star was to be Williams’ biggest threat in her twilight years. In search of a drought-breaking title, Williams has been constantly thwarted by Osaka in clutch moments over the last couple of years.

Yesterday was no exception. Williams went into their semi-final clash as a heavy favourite. Her improved agility and overall athleticism had made Serena fly to a new level throughout the past tournament, pummelling opponents with powerful ease. With world number one Ash Barty being eliminated in her quarter final match, the path looked open for Serena to finally claim a 24th Grand Slam title.

But Osaka stood in her way, barrelling the gate shut to the promised land. In a foul swoop in front of a half-full Rod Laver Arena, the Japanese wunderkind recovered after a slow start to eliminate Williams in straight sets. It was a particularly painful blow; Serena, now finding form that rivalled her prime, still couldn’t move the boulder of Osaka. The semi-final may turn out to become a defining result; could Serena Williams have finally met her match?

Naomi Osaka spanks a backhand against Serena (Photo by David Gray / AFP)

The real confirmation will come tomorrow night. Osaka is a wonderful player. Her game is flawless, and she has so many powerful weapons that can help her win matches in a variety of ways. Her athleticism is booming, and her shot making is blistering. If she can put all of it together to beat the wily American Jennifer Brady and claim a second Australian Open then she may finally be the main woman in the tennis circuit. Australia may just witness the changing of the guard; a process that many have waited for over a decade to occur.

But the women’s draw isn’t the only intriguing prospect. For the majority of the tournament, the male side of the bracket has followed a well-worn route. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were pitted against each other from the opening round, and looked raring to meet in another tense instalment of an Australian Open final. Both had advanced to the quarter finals, gritting their teeth through injury concerns to rise above the pack.

Djokovic held up his side of the bargain, blowing away controversies and a mid-section strain to barrel his way into the final in straight sets. His semi-final win came a night after Nadal’s tournament took a nosedive.

Stefanos Tsitsipas made himself known to the world when he upset Roger Federer in Australia a year ago. Despite going on to fall in straight sets to Rafa, he started a chain of action that would see him enter 2021 in the top five of the world rankings.

But his real arrival may have come when he faced Rafa once again. Having been subjected to a Nadal masterclass for the best part of three sets, the usually fiery Greek managed to steady himself and win the third set. Then the fourth. Before disbelieving eyes could process it, Tsitsipas had won his way through in five sets, completing a remarkable comeback with newfound maturity. If the long-haired Tsitsipas can control his emotions and produce such explosive tennis often, then he may be turning the final corner before Grand Slam success.

Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates his remarkable win over Rafa (Getty Images)

Despite Tsitsipas announcing himself as a genuine contender, he has work to do to ensure he doesn’t go the way of Dominic Thiem. The Austrian did similar things in 2020, winning his way through to the Aussie Open final before falling to Djokovic. Stefanos first must upset Daniel Medvedev, a reliable and nifty Russian, if he is to book a date with Novak.

But if he can get through to face Novak, then Tsitsipas has a golden chance to change tennis history. Djokovic is the king of the Aussie Open; a monumental effort would be required to upset his status quo. But the chance is still there, and with it is an opportunity to change the guard of world tennis and insert younger faces into the limelight.

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