Year after year, experts repeat the same mantra about the Australian Open: expect upsets. “Tennis’s annual surprise party,” read one headline years ago about the first Grand Slam of the tennis year.
But in the past decade, compared to the other majors, the Happy Slam has resembled more of a Somber Slam for underdogs. Despite the event’s early timing, top-ranked players have fared better at the Australian Open — which started Monday in Melbourne — than at any of tennis’s other three major championships.
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From 2011 to 2020, the average ranking of an Australian Open quarterfinalist was No. 16 (15.8), the highest ranking among all the Grand Slams. When upsets do happen at tennis’s biggest tournaments, they’re much more likely to occur later in the year. The average quarterfinalist ranking at the French Open was 18.3, at Wimbledon 21.4, and at the U.S. Open 20.6.
The trend especially stands out on the women’s side, where the average quarterfinalist ranking at the season’s final three Grand Slams has been about 24 or greater. “After a long season, you are just trying to survive at the end,” said Germany’s Angelique Kerber, whose first of three Grand Slam titles came in Melbourne in 2016.
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Conventional thinking has been that the Australian Open’s early timing — typically in the third week of the season1 — gives underdogs a better chance to beat the top players than they would have midyear, once the best have played their way into form. But experts say that more players are committing themselves to starting the season well, which has led to more chalk-filled draws.
Gone are the days when players would land in Australia immediately before the tournament and simply hope to play well, said Brad Gilbert, a former top five player and the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.
In the early 1990s, Gilbert remembers arriving in Melbourne a week before the tournament and trying to race his way into playing shape, only to feel tired two days later. These days, players typically arrive in Australia two weeks before the tournament and acclimate themselves to the Aussie summer.
“They get down there early and they prepare,” Gilbert said. “The Aussie sets the tone for the year.”
Players say that, rather than playing some of their worst tennis, the tournament’s early timing helps them play some of their best. They haven’t spent months changing time zones and zig-zagging across the globe during the 11-month season, so they’re excited about playing again when they get to Australia.
“It’s the beginning of the season,” said top-seeded Novak Djokovic. “Everyone is fresh and ready to jump-start their year.”
That had certainly been the case for the 33-year-old world No. 1, who’s going for his record-extending ninth Australian Open title this fortnight. Djokovic battled an injury Friday in a five-set match against American Taylor Fritz but still came away with the win.
The season’s first Grand Slam has produced its share of fairy-tale runs. In 2002, 16th seed Thomas Johansson of Sweden won his lone Grand Slam title in Melbourne, and unseeded finalists Marcos Baghdatis and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga advanced to the final in 2006 and 2008, respectively.
More recently, in 2018, a trio of players ranked outside the top 40 — Kyle Edmund (49), Hyeon Chung (58) and Tennys Sandgren (97) — all made the quarterfinals.
On the women’s side, just last year, 15th-seeded Sofia Kenin of the U.S. had never made it past the fourth round of a major championship, yet she won the Australian Open.
But plenty of top players are still upset early in Melbourne. Kenin herself, seeded fourth this year, fell in the second round Thursday to unseeded Kaia Kanepi. Also exiting early this year on the women’s side were No. 8 Bianca Andreescu and No. 9 Petra Kvitová, while the men’s draw has lost No. 10 Gaël Monfils, No. 12 Roberto Bautista Agut and No. 13 David Goffin.
But overall, players in the top 10 have tended to last longer in the Australian Open than in the other Grand Slams. The 10 highest-seeded players averaged 3.48 rounds won in the Australian Open since 2011; that average is 3.39 rounds at the French Open, 3.13 at the U.S. Open and just 3.03 at Wimbledon.
This year, of course, has been different for almost every player in Australia. They have had to quarantine because of local pandemic restrictions, and they’re lacking their usual Grand Slam preparations. On Friday, Melbourne went into lockdown after a new cluster of COVID-19 cases developed, and fans — who had been permitted in limited numbers at the tournament — will now be kept out.
All of the changes have Gilbert thinking the season’s first Grand Slam could offer a shock or two and start the year by serving up a true surprise party.
“This year is like no other,” he said. “I’ll be surprised if we don’t have a surprise semifinalist.”