Who to watch out for in 2021

 - Alexx Sharp

Grand Slam champions and NextGen superstars join our list of players who will be worth keeping tabs on this season

Ashleigh Barty - Australian Open 2020©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

‘Big Three’ this and Serena Williams that, there are the global icons of tennis who always dominate the headlines.

Well, returning, emerging and established talent are boosting the ranks on the both the ATP and WTA sides.

Let’s take a look at some names you should keep an eye out for in 2021.

Barty back in contention

Yes, it’s the world No.1, but due to the pandemic we sadly haven’t seen the Roland-Garros 2019 champion in competitive action since February.

Ashleigh Barty’s exhilarating semi-final run on home soil at the Australian Open last season seems a distant memory.

It’s going to be compelling viewing as the 24-year-old attempts to transition back into tournament mode after such a long absence. 

Barty’s all court craft and versatility has always been a pleasure to witness, however, the majority of the chasing pack are several steps ahead. Watch this space.

Andreescu ready to re-announce

Similar to Barty, Bianca Andreescu lifted a maiden major (US Open 2019) and then had her momentum halted.

For the Canadian it was a whole 2020 eradicated due to rehab from left knee surgery. 

Remember back in September 2019 Andreescu was playing sublime tennis, outmanoeuvring Serena Williams in the final at Flushing Meadows. The 20-year-old hasn’t featured on the tennis scene since the WTA Finals that November. It’s been a long, patient road back.

The raw power and champion instincts set Andreescu a decent platform to build on, especially after a training block in Dubai this month indicated that she’s ready to roll.

A few matches under her belt and the full Andrescu artillery will provide absorbing viewing. 

Sinner out to strike again

A teenager who rarely reveals too much emotion, keeping his cards close to his chest on court.

Jannik Sinner is an intriguing prospect, especially with highly-regarded coach Riccardo Piatti assembling an astute tactician and athlete.

The 2019 Next Gen Finals champion accelerated his progression in 2020, jumping from No.78 up to No.37 in the rankings. 

The youngest player in the Top 100’s development was exemplified at Roland-Garros as the first player since Rafael Nadal in 2005 to advance to the quarter-finals on debut. 

Nadal dismissed the 19-year-old in straight sets, but was so impressed by the Italian’s performances that he enlisted Sinner as his training partner for the upcoming Australian Open. 

Nadal knows Sinner is one to watch. 

Soaring Sabalenka a major threat

Back-to-back titles and Aryna Sabalenka curtailed 2020 in style.

Over to Abu Dhabi last week and the Belarusian kicked off her season with another quintet of disciplined yet explosive matches. 

Now at 15 wins in a row, three straight titles, Sabalenka is up to a career-high world No.7. 

Now it’s about transferring this crushing consistency to the Grand Slams. 

Sabalenka hasn’t reached a major quarter-final yet and her best in 2020 was the third hurdle in Paris. With current form and confidence, that surely has to change this campaign.

Can Gaston build on Parisian promise?

Last year launched a plethora of Next Gen prodigies up the roster. 

On the men’s side Lorenzo Musetti entertained, Juan Carlos Ferrero’s charge Carlos Alcaraz clinched three Challenger titles and Sebastian Korda shot into prominence at Roland-Garros.

Well, Hugo Gaston was also flying the flag for France at Roland-Garros.

The 20-year-old didn’t have a tour-level victory to his name but left the terre battue in Paris an international story.

Three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka unravelled in five sets due to Gaston’s chips, flicks and smooth style. The left hander has a penchant for the drop shot, which had Wawrinka scrambling, but he also has so much traditional quality to his game.

So much disguise on his shots, the squash-style lobs, the accomplished net game proved not all the youngsters will slug it out from the baseline.

Drop shots, a staggering 58, were on the menu again on Court Philippe-Chatrier to push US Open champion Dominic Thiem to the brink 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 3-6.

Can Gaston replicate such effective play to establish himself on the Tour to chase the Top 100? 

Box office Gauff gaining ground

Few players create a buzz like Coco Gauff.

The American is somehow still only 16 and has already achieved so much.

Up at world No.48, Gauff now has to adapt from unknown entity to true major contender. 

Like most players, 2020 was difficult to build momentum. Saying that, Gauff’s Australian Open illustrated she’s ready made for the box office battles.

Gauff emphatically ended Naomi Osaka’s title defence 6-3, 6-4, prior to taking the first set off eventual champion Sofia Kenin in the last 16. 

More of these scorelines and Gauff will have a standout season.

Rublev ready for fortnight challenge 

His peers voted him the 2020 ATP Most Improved Player of the Year.

Andrey Rublev is a must watch all season long.

The Russian led the ATP with five titles and 41 wins (only matched by world No.1 Novak Djokovic) last year. 

So relentless, such raw force and determination. Much like Sabalenka, it’s time for Rublev to make a Grand Slam move. Quarter-finals at the US Open and Roland-Garros last year demonstrate the 23-year-old is primed.

A fortnight of his heavy metal tennis would bring a smile to anyone.