Covid-19, the great Australian Open leveller: Daniela Hantuchova
Former world No. 5 believes there are no favourites in the women's draw
With the year's first Grand Slam set to begin on Monday, former women's world No. 5 Daniela Hantuchova believes the Covid-19 conditions that the Australian Open will be operating under will remove the favourites' tag and level the playing field.
When asked who the standout candidates in the women's singles competition were, the 37-year-old Slovak told The New Paper: "In these kind of circumstances, it's really hard to talk about stars or favourites... because these conditions really even the field and rankings don't matter as much any more...
"Also when you are top-seed players, there are some advantages... you have your practice courts whenever you want and some little things that can make a big difference in big matches, and that's not going to be happening...
"It's more about who is mentally going to be the star of the next couple of weeks... more than ever, it is going to become more of a mental sport."
Marcos Baghdatis, Melbourne Park finalist in 2006, agreed that the mental aspect will be more pivotal than ever, saying: "As hard as our sport is mentally, it's even tougher this year because of the situation."
For the 35-year-old Cypriot, however, there remains a clear favourite in the men's singles draw - world No. 1 and record eight-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic.
The former world No. 8 added: "He's the No. 1 player in the world and he feels like the Australian Open is like his home."
However, things at this year's tournament are markedly different from the last eight times Djokovic triumphed there.
This was highlighted by the fact that play at warm-up tournaments yesterday was cancelled, after a worker at one of the quarantine hotels had tested positive for Covid-19.
That caused 500-600 players and officials to be tested and isolated until they receive negative results.
These individuals had previously served a 14-day quarantine after flying into Melbourne for the tournament.
"Just from a player's perspective, mentally I can't even imagine how tough it must be," said Hantuchova, who won the mixed doubles crown at all four Grand Slams.
"You get out of the first quarantine thinking, right, now you have the freedom and you are going to play matches and stuff and now you're back to your room...
"Our sport is an individual sport and there is so much time you spend alone already... And now with the quarantine, it just makes it even harder."
She praised tournament director Craig Tiley for constantly communicating with the players and "not hiding", but not everyone has been so complimentary.
Spain's world No. 13 Roberto Bautista Agut likened the quarantine to prison "with Wi-Fi", while Djokovic was panned for sending a letter to the organisers asking them for a shorter quarantine period and "private houses with tennis courts", among other requests.
The tournament had already been pushed back by three weeks to allow the Victorian state government and organisers Tennis Australia to come up with a plan that would facilitate the Grand Slam taking place under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
Said Baghdatis: "If for any reason, something goes wrong and they will not continue with the Australian Open or have another two-three day (delay), we have to accept things...
"It's not just a tennis tournament, it's playing a tennis tournament and keeping a whole country safe."
*Daniela Hantuchova and Marcos Baghdatis are both Fox Sports' pundits for the Australian Open. Catch live coverage of the Australian Open 2021 from Feb 8-21 across Fox Sports networks.