Stars in contention, Russian trio shine, week one wonder in Melbourne 

The first half of an absorbing Australian Open has completed, ahead of a supreme quarter-finals line-up Down Under.

Rafael Nadal Australian Open 2021©Tennis Australia / Mark Peterson
 - Alex Sharp

Australian Open 2021 has blended together the best facets of Grand Slam tennis. Mesmerising matches, shocks, breakouts, countless moments of excellence.

Now it’s the mid-point, week one done and dusted.

As the action heads into the quarter-finals, let’s take a look back at some of the key storylines so far.

Revved up Rafa on a roll

20 days ago the outlook looked pretty bleak for Rafael Nadal, back muscle spasms threatening his chances to turn 20 majors into a men’s record-breaking 21. 

The reigning Roland-Garros 2020 champion has managed his back concern to incrementally build up devastating momentum.

He hasn’t been hampered on serve, broken only four times in four matches, with the world No.2 storming into the quarter-finals without dropping a set. 

On Monday Nadal once again ramped up his level, dispatching the mercurial 16th seed Fabio Fognini 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Just eight hours and nine minutes on court in week one, the Spaniard is fresh and firing.

“I'm excited about playing that quarter-finals,” stated the 2009 Australian Open champion. 

“If we compare how I was five days ago and how I am today's situation, it's different, and my perspective and excitement is completely different, too.”

The 34-year-old, bidding to become the first man in the Open Era to clinch each of the four majors on two or more occasions, will take a 6-1 head-to-head into his next clash against fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek has put in four polished performances Down Under, but can he conjure up a special showing to halt Nadal? 

Champions everywhere you look

The women’s game is thriving, with an abundance of versatility and spark on and off the court.

World No.1 Ash Barty, despite nearly a full calendar year off from competition, has meant business at her home Grand Slam, highlighting why she sits atop of the rankings.

US Open champion Naomi Osaka, saving two match points in a thriller with Garbiñe Muguruza, remains in contention and that’s without mentioning the absolute ‘popcorn’ clash between world No.2 Simona Halep and 24-major chasing Serena Williams.

Can Osaka clinch successive slams? Will Halep replicate her flawless 2019 Wimbledon final triumph over Serena?

All four of these major winners have portrayed their champion’s instincts, with crushing displays and finding the answers when pushed. How this draw unfolds will be fascinating. Make sure you tune in. 

Djokovic willing to take the pain for major gain

“If I'm part of any other tournament other than Grand Slam, I definitely wouldn't be playing,” said the 17-time major champion. 

At this stage of his career, Novak Djokovic is determined to close in on Roger Federer (20 majors) and Nadal (20). However, his task has been magnified at Melbourne Park, suffering a suspected abdominal muscle tear in the third round.

How the eight-time Australian Open winner managed to finish, let alone win that five-setter against Taylor Fritz, grimacing between points, is mind-boggling.

Now, having reached his 300th Grand Slam victory, the top seed has to cope, adapt and attack against the in-form world No.7 Alexander Zverev

What we’ve learned over the years is to never count out Novak. Dealing with his injury, the Serbian has been going for broke with scintillating shot-making, leading the men’s side with 190 winners, closely followed by Zverev on 171.

A quarter-final of the highest order, Djokovic leads their past battles 5-2 and won’t give up his trophy without a monumental fight. 

Russian tennis in good hands 

For the first in the Open Era, three Russian men have reached the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam.

World No.4 Daniil Medvedev, riding an 18-match winning streak which stretches all the way back to the Rolex Paris Masters in November, faces a rematch with his close friend and compatriot Andrey Rublev.

Medvedev won their 2020 US Open quarter-final encounter in straight sets, but has endured a turbulent journey in the opening week. This dynamic duo, relentlessly picking up wins and trophies, prove they are destined for a long stay at the top. Can they breakthrough for a maiden major this fortnight?

Another Russian Aslan Karatsev has burst onto the major scene. On Grand Slam debut the world No.114 qualifier is the lowest ranked man to reach the last eight since 1991. The 27-year-old’s fearless striking has earned wins over Diego Schwartzman and Felix Auger-Aliassime. 

A real shotmaker, Karatsev will be a captivating watch against the resurgent Grigor Dimitrov

Year of the outsider?

As Karatsev’s astonishing run exemplifies, there is room amongst the history-chasing champions to make their mark in Melbourne.

Away from the usual suspects the likes of Karolina Muchova, American duo Jessica Pegula and Jennifer Brady and the unique Hsieh Su-wei will be pushing to shock the headline acts.

How they can halt the favourites is their conundrum, but it’s a certainty this quartet will push the established elite to their limits.