Despite all the difficulties presented by coronavirus restrictions, the Australian Open promises to field its strongest draws in years when it takes place at Melbourne Park three weeks later than originally planned from 8-21 February.
We are looking forward to welcoming the world’s best players to Melbourne and what promises to be a spectacular Australian Open following a year of disruption on a scale none of us has ever experienced before. Craig Tiley, Australian Open Tournament Director
The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped every player in the men’s top 100 and 98 of the world’s top 100 women’s stars from committing to the first Grand Slam of the year.
Australia’s World No 1 Ash Barty and eight-time AO champion Novak Djokovic from Serbia headline their respective 128-strong draws, at what promises to be a historic event.
“We are looking forward to welcoming the world’s best players to Melbourne and what promises to be a spectacular Australian Open following a year of disruption on a scale none of us has ever experienced before,” AO Tournament Director Craig Tiley said.
“Although the AO will look a bit different to previous years, the safety of everyone is our top priority.
“We have the opportunity to stage a very safe, and happy Slam, and give the players the experience of competing in front of crowds again, something they’ve missed for most of this year.
“There are so many great storylines for AO 2021.
“Serena is gunning for her eighth AO title while Novak, who often seems invincible at Melbourne Park, is going for a record ninth title.
“Our own World No 1 Ash Barty will return to Grand Slam competition, as will Roger Federer as he comes back from injury.
“And there’s a new crop of rising stars coming up to challenge them all.
“It’s going to be a great few weeks of tennis here in Melbourne.”
American World No 89 Taylor Townsend and Spain’s recently-retired three-time quarter-finalist Carla Suarez Navarro are the only top 100 players not on the women’s entry list.
Serena Williams’ motivation is unquestioned as she sets herself up to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles by winning an eighth Australian Open crown.
Also in contention on the women’s side are World No 2 Simona Halep (ROU), 2020 US Open champion  Naomi Osaka (JPN), defending champion  Sofia Kenin (USA),  Elina Svitolina (UKR),  Karolina Pliskova (CZE),  Bianca Andreescu (CAN),  Petra Kvitova (CZE),  Kiki Bertens (NED) and  Aryna Sabalenka (BLR).
Two-time champion Victoria Azarenka (BLR) returns, having missed the tournament in 2020, alongside19-year-old Iga Swiatek (POL), the newest Grand Slam women’s champion who won Roland Garros in October.
Barty, who skipped both her French Open title defence and the US Open because of the coronavirus, is also joined in the women’s draw by compatriots Ajla Tomljanovic and wildcards Astra Sharma, Maddison Inglis, Lizette Cabrera and Daria Gavrilova.
Former US Open champion Samantha Stosur is almost certain to also gain a wildcard, if she wants one, after narrowly missing the direct entry cut-off following the birth of her first child last year.
Joining World No 1 and defending champ Djokovic is World No 2 Rafael Nadal (ESP),  Dominic Thiem (AUT),  Daniil Medvedev (RUS),  Roger Federer (SUI),  Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE),  Alexander Zverev (GER),  Andrey Rublev (RUS),  Diego Schwartzman (ARG) and  Matteo Berrettini (ITA), making up an entertaining top-10 mix of Grand Slam champions and the next generation of young guns knocking at the door.
World No 23 Alex de Minaur leads the Australian men’s contingent, supported by John Millman, Nick Kyrgios, Jordan Thompson, James Duckworth and wildcards Chris O’Connell and Marc Polmans.
Another 10 wildcards will be issued in coming weeks, with more Australians sure to be recipients.
A total of 104 players receive direct entry into the men’s and women’s singles main draw and a further eight are awarded wildcards, while 16 places will be determined at the qualifying rounds from 10-13 January 2021 in Dubai and Doha respectively.
In the past 17 years, the all-time Grand Slam leading trio of Djokovic (2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020), Federer (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2017, 2018) and Nadal (2009) have won the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup 15 times between them.
There have been eight different women’s champions since 2011 – Kenin (2020), Osaka (2019), Caroline Wozniacki (2018), Serena Williams (2017, 2015), Angelique Kerber (2016), Li Na (2014), Azarenka (2013, 2012) and Kim Clijsters (2011).
Four other women join the field on protected rankings with  Yaroslava Shvedova (KAZ), AO 2009 semifinalist and World No 78 Vera Zvonareva (RUS),  Katie Boulter (GBR) and  Mona Barthel (GER) all set to play in Melbourne.
World No 71 Yen-Hsun Lu (TPE) and  Mackenzie McDonald (USA) join the men’s field on protected rankings.
Meanwhile, tickets for the event have gone on sale in Melbourne to admit at least 25% capacity for the public in the Grand Slam’s three main stadiums, Rod Laver Arena, Margaret Court Arena and John Cain Arena.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, tournament organisers are taking new steps to ensure the safety of those at Melbourne Park, including dividing the venue into three zones, with each including one of those three stadiums.
“As we work closely with the Victorian government, [we] hope to be in a position to increase our numbers as we get closer to the event,” Tiley said in a press release.
The Australian Open has a COVIDSafe plan, part of which includes tickets being sold in family ‘pods’ of between one and six tickets each to help with social distancing. Tickets will be digital in 2021 to minimise touchpoints and help with contact tracing.
In addition, the start times of sessions will be staggered to help avoid overcrowding, with Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena sessions beginning at 11 a.m., and John Cain Arena starting at 12 p.m.
“The AO will be a great celebration for Melbourne and all Victoria after an incredibly tough year,” Tiley said.
“Although our event will look a little different as we prioritise the safety of everyone, it’s going to be a fantastic opportunity to come together and experience many of the best things about Melbourne – live, world-class sport in an exciting festival atmosphere.”