2021 Australian Open experts’ picks: Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic clear favorites

The first Grand Slam event of the year has finally arrived. The 2021 Australian Open will provide a little bit of a return to normalcy, as fans will be in attendance.

Despite the obstacles, from 72 players having to quarantine upon arrival and forced to train in their hotel rooms for 14 days, to a hotel worker testing positive for COVID-19 and forcing players back into isolation, the tournament is happening (watch on ESPN+ and the ESPN App).

Our experts break down who they expect to come out on top in the men’s and women’s singles draws, and who to keep an eye on to make a surprise run for the crown.

Who will win the men’s singles title?

James Blake: Novak Djokovic. He just feels so confident at the event and still the best mover in the game.

Cliff Drysdale: Djokovic is the obvious pick given his winning history in Melbourne, but it will not be a gimme with a tough draw.

Chris Evert: Rafael Nadal. I just love his competitive spirit, and I think he’s hungry for another Grand Slam title.

Brad Gilbert: I would love to see Nadal get No. 21, but Djoker is the big favorite since he’s so difficult to beat Down Under. However, I am choosing a new champion: It will either be Stefanos Tsitsipas or Daniil Medvedev, but I’m leaning toward the young Greek to win his first Slam.

Jason Goodall: Beating Djokovic in Melbourne is almost — not quite, but almost — as difficult as beating Nadal at Roland Garros. Novak vs. the field? Novak.

Sam Gore: Djokovic. Hard to pick anyone else when you consider the success he has had at this event as an eight-time champion. But this year there are a couple of other things going in his favor as I see it. First, the way he exited the US Open. Yes, it was his fault and he apologized, but you know it has burned him up inside since. Second, fitness and mental edge. No one stays fitter, and this major will come down to who best stays fit and handles the mental grind of quarantine.

Luke Jensen: Novak Djokovic just doesn’t lose in these conditions. The speed of the court and extremely hot Aussie summer weather gives him the edge.

D’Arcy Maine: Djokovic. The world No. 1 didn’t win either of the 2020 Slams played during the pandemic and has recently made more than his share of off-the-court headlines, but it still feels impossible to rule him out in Melbourne. Hard to think anyone has a better chance of winning this tournament than he does.

Jake Michaels: Dominic Thiem. The Austrian broke through with his first major title last year, and he will fancy his chances of bettering his runner-up finish against Djokovic at Melbourne Park last year.

Patrick McEnroe: Changing of the guard arrives with Medvedev over Thiem in the final after each beat Nadal and Djoker in semifinals.

Chris McKendry: Djokovic for the three-peat, extending his overall total to a record nine Australian Open titles. The world’s best hard-court player carries an air of invincibility in Melbourne. And no one believes that more than he does.

Pam Shriver: Medvedev, because I am tired of picking Djokovic or Nadal to win, and Medvedev found great form toward the end of 2020 and seems to have kept it during this week’s ATP Cup. He loves the hard court and wants to join Thiem in breaking up the Big Three dominance at the majors. (It makes me uneasy that Medvedev has never won a five-setter, but that will also change in Melbourne.)

Rennae Stubbs: Just like Rafael Nadal in Paris, Djokovic is the man to beat in Australia.

Matt Walsh: Djokovic. He loves Melbourne, loves winning, and seems to especially love when his back is against the wall. Djokovic had — how can I put it — an interesting 2020, but knowing the champ that he is, he’ll have his eyes firmly on a ninth Norman Brookes trophy.

Who will win the women’s singles title?

Blake: Ashleigh Barty. She had the best preparation in terms of being able to control her environment instead of having to quarantine.

Drysdale: Naomi Osaka. Unlike so many others in the women’s field, she has the belief. Winning begets winning, and she is on a roll.

Evert: Serena Williams. It’s now or never. She’s moving better, she’s fitter, and the rest of field is not match-tough.

Gilbert: The bottom half of the women’s draw is absolutely loaded, but I will go with Osaka. She is the best hard-court player in the women’s game right now.

Goodall: Osaka is the clear favorite. The fact that other players haven’t been able to play many events since the US Open also gives Serena her best chance in years.

Gore: Simona Halep. She has had the advantage of quarantining in Adelaide, which has likely benefited her mentally. Her fitness is usually superior, so I see her outlasting most of her opponents in long matches. She’s been a finalist here and reached the semis last year.

Jensen: Osaka has the big first- and second-serve combo that separates her from the field. She has a tough-as-nails mindset that will play well from a deficit, like in the 2020 US Open finals. The speed of the Melbourne hard courts fits perfectly with her power ground-game style.

Maine: Osaka. I mean, did you see her play at the US Open? She was virtually unstoppable, even when pushed to three sets against some very formidable opponents, and seems to be at the top of her game. Unlike during her last appearance in Melbourne, as the defending champion, she seems at ease with the spotlight and comfortable with her front-runner status. It’s hard to see anyone beating her on the hard courts.

Michaels: Sofia Kenin. There’s no reason Kenin can’t go back-to-back in Australia. Her Slam record in 2020 was an impressive 16-2, and with another year of experience, she should find further improvement.

McEnroe: Barty will give Australian fans and the WTA a huge present, as I see her winning the title with a win over Halep in final. Serena will make a deep run, but I don’t see her getting past Halep.

McKendry: Osaka faces a tough draw, but don’t all the women this year? She’ll begin 2021 as she finished the 2020 Grand Slam season — with a title.

Shriver: Despite a challenging draw (arguably the toughest half of a women’s major draw ever), Osaka will take a giant step toward becoming the most dominant hard-court player of her generation with her fourth major title, all on hard courts. She has been able to keep her exceptional power under control at the most pressure-packed moments, as well (she is 3-0 in major finals).

Stubbs: With the courts being faster, Osaka is the one to beat. She is healthy and confident, and she loves playing in Melbourne. She is on a high and playing as solid as anyone.

Walsh: Barty. I’m calling it — Australia will have its first homegrown Australian Open winner since Chris O’Neil in 1978. Sure, she’s had a year “off,” but she has been working on her game and hasn’t had to do hotel quarantine.

Which men’s player could make a surprise run to win?

Blake: Andrey Rublev. I love the way he plays. He won five titles last year, and now just needs to put it all together in a Slam.

Drysdale: Denis Shapovalov. He’s pesky yet talented, but just like Djoker, has a much tougher half.

Evert: Stefanos Tsitsipas believes he can beat top players, and his improvement is obvious.

Gilbert: I would love to see someone 21 and under make the semifinals and an American to make the second week.

Goodall: Rublev should make at least the quarterfinals, although he is not quite yet ready to win the whole thing. Of the younger, lower-ranked players, watch out for Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, who’s very much following in Nadal’s footsteps.

Gore: Alexander Zverev. His off-court personal issues have been a distraction, but he has had progressive success in Melbourne. He has the talent to win it all, and he might feel less of pressure away from all the scrutiny he faced in Europe.

Jensen: I’m liking Tennys Sandgren. The Sandman has feasted at the Aussie in the past with quarterfinals appearances in 2018 and 2020, and he had match points against Roger Federer in last year’s quarterfinals. Get the popcorn out for the first round, because Sandgren competes against the 21-seed Aussie, Alex De Minaur. That will be a great battle between two of the most fit ballers on the ATP Tour.

Maine: Jannik Sinner. The 19-year-old made a quarterfinal run at the French Open and won his first ATP title at the Sofia Open in November. It seems only a matter of time before he challenges the supremacy of the Big Three and hoists a major trophy. If he can escape Shapovalov in the first round, why not now?

Michaels: Stan Wawrinka. He has reached the quarterfinals in three of his past five major appearances and is a former Australian Open winner (2014). Write him off at your own peril.

McEnroe: Felix Auger Aliassime is ready for a breakthrough.

McKendry: Rublev. Although he’s never taken a set from Medvedev, Rublev will shock his fellow Russian in the quarterfinals and will go on to take the title.

Shriver: Rublev. With more titles in 2020 than any other men’s player, and as big a forehand as any in the game, he is ready to take a major.

Stubbs: Tsitsipas. He loves Melbourne, has great memories here, beating Roger Federer, and with the court playing faster, it suits his game. If he can manage his emotions, he will be a huge threat.

Walsh: Zverev. Could this be the year he breaks back into the top three? Last year in Melbourne, he fell to eventual runner-up Thiem in the semis, and in that match won the first set and forced two tiebreakers. The 23-year-old isn’t far off.

Which women’s player could make a surprise run to win?

Blake: Jennifer Brady. She played so well on the hard courts at the US Open, and I think she can do it again.

Drysdale: Considering she’s sitting outside the top five right now, Serena. No way you bet against the GOAT. But a few others to consider are Coco Gauff and Victoria Azarenka. One will benefit from the easier draw in the top half.

Evert: Victoria Azarenka believes she can beat anyone, and her preseason training was stellar.

Gilbert: Lately, at almost every Slam, an unseeded player makes the semis. I see that happening again. Let’s stay with an American going on a run, like I hoped for the men. Maybe someone outside the top 15 can make a deep run.

Goodall: Brady is looking to back up her great run at the US Open, while Francesca Jones is making her main-draw debut at a major after qualifying in the Middle East. She’s an inspirational player (with only three fingers and a thumb on each hand) who will be competing against the world’s best.

Gore: Azarenka. A two-time champion in Australia, she seems to be in an excellent frame of mind following quarantine. I love the maturity she has shown in dealing with all that has happened as a result of the pandemic. She knows her days in the sport are numbered, so she’s been locked in on winning this major. Serena, Osaka and Kenin all seem to have some injury questions, so I could see Vika advancing under the radar and winning the title.

Jensen: I like Brady here. In 2020, her US Open semifinal appearance and win at the WTA event in Lexington, Kentucky, have made her a player to watch going into any major. In 2017, Brady reached the fourth round in Melbourne and has since developed into an all-court and all-capable competitor at every level.

Maine: Aryna Sabalenka. OK, so this would hardly be a surprise to anyone who has followed her recent results (winning titles at Ostrava and Linz to close the year and the season-opening event in Abu Dhabi), but she has never advanced past the fourth round at a major. She has the game to do it — could this finally be the Slam where she makes her breakthrough?

Michaels: Serena. Not sure it would be considered a surprise if Williams hoisted the trophy at the end of the fortnight, but she hasn’t won a major since 2017.

McEnroe: Maria Sakkari should make a nice run.

McKendry: Garbine Muguruza loves the Grand Slam events and has looked the strongest and most consistent in the tuneup event.

Shriver: I was not expecting to name someone who came from the 14-day hard quarantine, but Brady will play another strong hard-court major. Her US Open semifinal run was impressive and gave her the confidence she needed during majors. Her forehand and serve are developing into one of the strongest 1-2 punches in women’s tennis.

Stubbs: Muguruza. She is playing great and loves the court and atmosphere here. When at her best, she is always a threat. There is a handful a women outside of the top four who can win, but she might be the one to break through.

Walsh: Muguruza. She doesn’t mind playing in Melbourne, and after her strong run to last year’s final and her hot start to the Australian summer so far in 2021, she could win it all.

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