Sport in 2021: Comeback stories everywhere you look

Richmond walk onto the field for their first game of 2020 against Carlton at an empty MCG.

Richmond walk onto the field for their first game of 2020 against Carlton at an empty MCG. Photo: AAP

Sport suffered its greatest setbacks since World War II in 2020, as competitions, including the showpiece Tokyo Olympics, were shutdown – but doesn’t everyone love a comeback story?

Sport in 2021 will be a crowded affair, although not necessarily in the terraces, where social distancing and smaller crowds will still be a feature of many events. Moreso in the fixturing, with many events that were cancelled or downsized in 2020 being rescheduled.

For some events it will be crucial to find a mass audience after finances took a severe blow through the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the TV revenues continuing to roll in, one thing officials now know for certain is that without the atmosphere and noise pf the crowd, elite sport is just highly paid athletes running around on a park.

As sport moves to fill its stadiums again, here how the brave new world of COVID safe, with sound, will look in 2021 …

Australian tennis to test to testers

The Australian Open will be first cab off the rank in 2021, setting the scene for much of what is to come – player bubbles, the fear of late withdrawals COVID-contingencies and smaller crowds. But with all that comes excitement – and it all starts at the later date of February 8.

The news that Roger Federer is still recovering from a knee injury means the field is again clear for long-time rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – although the latter may find Victorian crowds prickly after his disastrous Serbian charity event, which became a COVID-19 spreader.

Novak Djokovic after winning the Australian Open in January 2020. Photo: AAP

In 2020 Nadal equalled Federer’s 20 grand slam event wins, while world No.1 Djokovic starts this year with 17. No one would be betting against there being three big names tied at the top of the tree by the end of 2021

Prediction: There may be fewer of them, but tennis fans at Melbourne Park will still laugh uproariously at even the most indistinct celebrity pratfall, oversized tennis ball drop or televised ‘hi, mum’. Can organisers  please get some real comedians in to make it all seem a little less cringeworthy?

A formula for success at Albert Park

Daniel Ricciardo is on the hunt for a championship car and his time is running out.

After banking a huge paycheque and bagging two podiums at Renault in two years, his shock move to McLaren could well be his last roll of the dice in cracking the top silverware.

Daniel Ricciardo (R) and Lando Norris during one of their regular comedy shows. Photo: AAP

Melbourne has never been a happy hunting ground for the West Australian and this year’s Albert Park event on March 21

Prediction: It’s been all giggles and playacting between Ricciardo and McLaren young gun Lando Norris in past years. Let’s see how long the fun lasts now they are sharing two sides of a garage.

Life after lockdown for the big leagues

Anyone who misses AFL won’t have long to wait, with the 18-match pre-season kicking off between Geelong and Essendon with a Thursday night clash at GMHBA Stadium on February 18.

The regular season starts on March 18, with the now ‘traditional’ Richmond v Carlton clash at the MCG. The upside is that Carlton’s form in 2021 is expected to continue its upward trajectory, possibly ensuring a decent match for the back-to-back Tigers.

The AFL will resume with 23 rounds and five-day breaks, but there’ll now be a floating fixture with match-ups and times beyond round seven to be announced later.

Expect also a mid-year report to decide one way or the other on the thorny issue of a night grand final at the MCG.

In the NRL, the emphasis remains on a return to normal and “packed stadiums”, with a full 25 round fixture and a mid-year State of Origin.

What next? Melbourne Storm, led by Cameron Smith, enjoys the victory in 2020. Photo: AAP

Rugby League HQ was one of the driving forces in getting sport back on the field in 2020 – through economic necessity – so expect the competition to again run a fine line between maximising crowds and remaining COVID safe.

Prediction: The money men and TV executives will get halfway to their goal of an AFL night grand final with fireworks, with the League opting for a twilight event. In the NRL, expect the ‘will he, won’t he’ future of Melbourne Storm great Cameron Smith to end in sunnier climes, but the Storm to still maintain their dominance.

Euro 2020 becomes Euro 2021

The domestic A-League was one of the competition’s most afflicted by the changing demands of 2020’s pandemic response and this year it’s no different as the competition transitions from a summer to a winter competition.

In a year that offers a feast of football for fans, it will also test concentration spans and loyalty as the A-League finals ultimately compete with some of the sport’s biggest names in Euro 2021.

The much anticipated 24-team UEFA 2020 tournament was cancelled and pushed to June 11 to mid-July, meaning the Women’s Euro event has been pushed forward to 2022.

A-League battling for eyeballs: Brisbane’s Jai Ingham and Melbourne Citry captain Scott Jamieson this week. Photo: AAP 

With a 12-month delay and a Wembley final, Euro 2021, err 2020, is sure to be one of the big events of the year … topped only by the Olympics.

Prediction: The A-League has a lot going on in a year when there is a lot going on. Holding its core audience via the new TV arrangements with Foxsport will be key to launching into a new era.

Tokyo’s Olympic fireworks finally set to go off

It’s the big one … 10,000 athletes arriving in Tokyo a year late for sport’s biggest festival from July 24 until August 9.

It’s not the first time that Japan missed its moment, having won the bid to stage the 1940 Olympics but going to war instead. Japan had to wait until 1964 to get a second chance.

Despite a near $4 billion cost in delaying the event, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said his nation would “spare no effort” to make the Games safe for athletes and visitors.

Japan has borne a huge cost after delaying the Olympics. Photo: AAP

No skimping on the mask-wearing then, which has long been a feature of life in community-minded Japan and has no doubt been a factor in the nation having better numbers than most in battling the virus.

As for the on-track efforts of Australia’s athletes the form guide has been muddled by the uncertainty and delays.

Prediction: While the Australian Olympic Committee is loathe to predict medal hauls, our athletes had been tipped by Olympic rating group to place Australia in the top echelon of nations at No.5, with a total of 45 medals, including 17 gold.

A brave new Ashes world?

By the time 2021 comes to an end, sports fans will be in the middle of a no doubt engrossing home Ashes series, with five Tests held at the traditional venues and, hopefully, in front of full stadiums.

While the current Test series against India has some way to run, there’s no doubt the Australian cricket team has work ahead to bring on the next generation of batsmen who can do the job against the old enemy – that’s England, not COVID-19.

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