Sunday, January 29, 2023

My Australian Open top 10

Here are my top 10 Australian Open happenings, in ascending order:

10. Putting on a (long) show: 15-year-old Alina Korneeva, playing in her first major, not only had to oppose her doubles partner, Mirra Andreeva, in the singles final, but also had to do so for three hours and 18 minutes. Korneeva won the championship, and she and Andreeva scored major points for junior level competitiveness and fitness.

9. Remember their names: If you follow junior tennis, you know that Diana Shnaider has been a standout in both singles and doubles (and especially doubles) for the past few years. This year, the 18-year-old Russian qualified for the singles main draw in Melbourne and won her first round, defeating Kristina Kucova. She played her second round match against 6th seed Maria Sakkari, took a set off of the Greek star, and dragged her through a two-hour and 33-minutes contest. She lost that battle, but the lefty in the all-business head wrap was a formidable opponent and a joy to watch.

Sakkari escaped that challenge, but in the next round, she couldn't escape Zhu Lin. After beating Rebecca Marino in the first round, Zhu went on to upset 32nd seed Jil Teichmann. That would have been impressive enough, but then the Chinese player went on to take out Sakkari in the next round. She would fall to two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in the round of 16, but not before pushing Azarenka to three sets.

8. An outstanding career
: Samantha Stosur, who had already retired from singles competition,  made the 2023 Australian Open her last tournament in doubles. The Australian player was a doubles star before she broke out as a singles star, a trend that would be repeated by her countrywoman Ash Barty, and----more recently--by Czech player Barbora Krejcikova.

Stosur reached the number 1 ranking in doubles, and the number 4 ranking in singles.  She won eight doubles titles (including four majors), three mixed doubles titles (all majors), and eight singles titles, including the 2011 U.S. Open championship. She was also the runner-up at the 2010 French Open.

7. Just how great is Diede the Great?: Pretty great. The defending champion won her fifth Australian Open singles title, even though it was a bumpy ride in the final, in which she lost 0-6 to Yui Kamiji in the first set. And she and Aniek Van Koot defended their doubles title, making it their fourth win in Australia. de Groot has now won 17 singles majors and 16 doubles majors.

6. A pairing made in broadcast heaven
: We hear so much bad commentary in tennis (and the one commentator that so many of us loved disappeared from the airwaves) that it was an absolute pleasure to listen to Laura Robson and Daniela Hantuchova at this Australian Open. I've enjoyed listening to both of them for a while, but putting them together sparked magic. They are both intelligent analysts, and each of them has a delicious sense of humor. More, please.

5. The comeback just keeps getting better
: After her knee surgery, Brazlian doubles player Luisa Stefani was out for almost a year. Upon returning in the fall of 2022, she got right down to business, winning in Guadalajara (with Storm Sanders), then winning in Adelaide (with Taylor Townsend) at the beginning of 2023. Stefani was scheduled to play doubles with Caty McNally at the Australian Open, but McNally had to withdraw. She did play mixed doubles, however, with countryman Rafael Matos, and they won the title.

4. "It ain't over 'til it's over" doesn't begin to describe it: Miriam Kolodziejova and Marketa Vondrousova played 7th seeds Beatriz Haddad-Maia and Zhang Shuai in the second round of doubles. The situation was already complicated because Vondrousova was injured, but it got a lot more complicated as the match wore on.

Haddad Maia and Zhang won the first set, 6-3. It looked like they were going to win the second set--and the match--but by the end of the set, the Czech team had saved six match points before going on to win a tiebreak, 11-9. That was exciting enough, but it paled compared with what took place in the third set. Haddad Maia and Zhang, obviously frustrated with what happened in the second set, quickly went up 5-0, but Kolodziejova and Vondrousova were still there to play. They won five straight games, saved a match point, and then took the match to another tiebreak, in which they saved two more match points, and won, 14-12. Their 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 victory took two hours and 31minutes to achieve.

While I was watching this incredible match, I thought of another Australian Open doubles match, played in 2009, in which Daniela Hantuchova and Ai Sugiyama played Cara Black and Liezel Huber. Black and Huber won the first set in a 7-0 tiebreak, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama won the second, 6-3. 

In the third set, Hantuchova and Sugiyama went down 2-5, but--just as it looked as though they didn't have a chance--some switch got turned on, and they began to play in complete sync with one another, with Hantuchova setting up repeated winning volleys for Sugiyama. The set went to a tiebreak, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama went down 2-6, but they wound up winning it 12-10. The match lasted three hours, and Hantuchova and Sugiyama saved seven match points.

3. Polish power in Melbourne: We were expecting it, and we got it. But it wasn't world number 1 Iga Swiatek--she went out in the round of 16 to eventual finalist Elena Rybakina. What we did get was Magda Linette. After defeating Mayar Sherif in the first round, she went on to upset 16th seed Anett Kontaveit, 19th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, 4th seed Caroline Garcia, and 30th seed (whose status is certainly higher than the seed number next to her name) Karolina Pliskova. 

Linette's run to the semifinals was thrilling. The 30-year-old had never made it past the third round of a major before this year, but she kept trying, and she kept working on the mental aspect of her game. In her semifinal match, Linette took eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka to a first set tiebreak, but lost in straight sets. It was a great run, and further proof that the "older" athlete can be a force on the tour.

2. We liked it so much, we did it again!: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova were the top seeds and defending champions at this year's Australian Open, and now they're the new champions. The Czech pair defeated 10th seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara in straight sets in the final. Last year, they won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but missed a chance to win the Grand Slam because Krejcikova was ill and could not compete at the French Open. Now the new champions--who already own a Career Slam (a golden one)--have another chance to go for the Grand Slam.

1. When it all comes together: Aryna Sabalenka has always been a fiery ball of potential. The 24-year-old from Minsk not only plays power tennis, she also has an abundance of doubles skills. But lately, she has been plagued with problems with her serve, and--throughout her career--she has had to struggle with her emotions on court. Determined to put these issues behind her, Sabalenka arrived in Melbourne with an Adelaide trophy, a new serve, and a new attitude. Sabalenka didn't drop a set until she ran into Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the final, but she hit 17 aces and a total of 51 winners in that very exciting match, and emerged the 2023 Australian Open singles champion.

Sabalenka's Australian Open victory gives her twelve singles titles. She also won the Australian Open doubles championship in 2021, with partner Elise Mertens, whom she defeated this year in the third round of singles competition.


Todd.Spiker said...

#5b. (and Stefani ended Sania Mirza's slam career in the final, too) ;)

As usual, the AO clothing was interesting, ranging from the good (Vekic) to the classic (Korneeva) to the, umm, I'm not quite sure what to call the let's-put-every-color-in-a-blender-and-print-it-out Nike collection. (Although, by the end, showing you can get used to anything, I wasn't minding it on Vika, who's had quite a journey over the years when it's come to her AO outfits.)

Diane said...

I decided to let the Mirza thing be for now, since she wasn't retiring at the AO. Seems like she's been around forever, in some form or other. Still one of the greatest forehands on the tour--the forehand of fire! (And I'm still somewhat reeling over her statement that she isn't a feminist--she's a huge feminist, but even she bought into the "poison" of the word.) A tour mom once told me that Sania and her mother were the nicest people on the tour (that was several years ago).

The Nike thing looked better as shorts, I think, or maybe it just looked better on Vika. I used to say "Nike hates Vika," but then I started saying "Nike hates everyone (except Maria)." I actually liked Pliskova's kit, but it would have looked good on very few players.

Todd.Spiker said...

Mirza said she has "a few more tournaments." I'm wondering where she's ending... Sunshine Swing, maybe?

Diane said...

I read that her last event will be Dubai.