Pow! Pop! Wham! – Sabalenka Powers Her Way to Australian Victory

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

They call the Australian Open the Happy Slam. But, come on, in some ways the often jolly Melbourne happening is the tumultuous Slam. In recent years, its narrative has included heat waves, bushfires, a nasty pandemic and a ban of the world’s No. 1 player.

This year, the ATP’s most charismatic player, Rafa Nadal, didn’t even make it to the starting line. The tourney began on a Sunday for the first time. And OMG, fans were actually allowed to go to their seats after every game.

The WTA’s most beloved veteran, Naomi Osaka, quietly fell. A little-known young Czech, Linda Noskova, shocked No. 1 seed Iga Swiatek, and WTA seeds were toppled like wobbly bowling pins. We saw a marathon tiebreak for the ages, a 3:39 AM finish, and the King of Melbourne, Mr. Djokovic, was unceremoniously dethroned by a Sinner.

Yet, in the end, Aussie Open fans left singing the same song as last year. Big, bold Aryna Sabalenka again lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in triumph.

The Belarusian basher had swept through the draw to the semis, losing a mere 16 games. She then showed her mettle as she raised her game at crunch time and got a taste of sweet revenge, turning the tables on Coco Gauff, who’d downed her at the US Open.

Tonight she extinguished Qinwen Zheng, the brightest light in Asian tennis.

Thirteen years ago China’s enchanting Li Na had broken through, winning both the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open. Asian tennis seemed poised to enter a golden era: “Let the boom begin!”

China built lavish tennis palaces, and the WTA abruptly pivoted to the East and invested hugely in China, which soon would stage eleven different tournaments. But then Covid hit and the Peng Shuai sexual abuse case led to a quick exit by the WTA. Chaos ensued.

Asian tennis seemed adrift. But in recent months it has rebounded. Vijay Amritraj and Leander Paes became the first Indians named to the International Hall of Fame. In Melbourne, another Indian, doubles specialist Rohana Bopana, became, at 43, the oldest player to become No. 1 in the world.

The beaming wizard of Taiwan, Hsieh Su-Wei, won the Aussie Open mixed doubles title and is into the doubles final. Japan’s Naomi Osaka made her return, and “the Queen of Chinese tennis,” Zheng Qinwen, reached the top ten as she streaked to the final, despite having quite a hitch in her serve.

Then again, Zheng knows a thing or two about hitches. When she was just seven, her dad took her to a distant tennis academy in Wuhan, three hours away from home. It was just supposed to show off her skills – no big deal. But her dad left her there. Tears flowed. Qinwen begged her parents not to leave her alone. But ultimately she had to deal with their abandonment.

This was only one of many harsh reversals she’d contend with. When she was up a set against Iga Swiatek at the 2022 French Open and poised to score an upset for the ages, menstrual cramps torpedoed her hopes.

When she faced Sabalenka at last year’s US Open she was undone by nerves. And, more recently, her world class coach, Wim Fissette, suddenly left her to teach Osaka again.

Her path at this year’s Aussie Open was as soft as the Pillsbury dough boy. En route to the finals, the No. 12 seed didn’t face a single seed, or even any player in the top 50. The average ranking of her foes was 84. Still, three times it took her three sets to prevail. Known as a battler, the 21-year-old told Sabalenka before their match, “Enjoy the final. Let’s fight!”

But sadly it wasn’t much of a battle. Sabalenka, with her fierce tiger tattoo on her arm, was on the prowl from the outset. She came out fast. Tonight there were few signs of the nervous, fragile Belarusian who’d so often imploded in big matches.

Gone were all the yips on her serve, the embarrassing flood of double faults and the desperate underhand serves. Goodness, just two years ago here she’d been averaging 14 double faults per match. Tonight the Belarusian wouldn’t have to endure the “Why don’t you come out against the war?” questions her Ukrainian critics asked that so distracted her at last year’s French Open.

Instead we saw a composed dynamo who’d powered through the draw as she sprinted to the semis without dropping a set.

From the outset tonight, the defending Aussie Open champ was firing on all cylinders as she collected eight of the first nine points and raced to a 3-0 lead.

Zheng did have a bit of traction. At times the thousands of Chinese fans in Rod Laver Arena had opportunities to offer full-throated chants, and the reportedly 20 million viewers in China could cheer.

But the nervous and overwhelmed Zheng couldn’t convert any of the three break points she had in the third game. Here was a lopsided, rather merciless beatdown. Sabalenka unleashed a barrage of deep punishing blasts and served big. Flash crosscourt forehands and lean-in backhands made her foe seem hapless. She took the racket out of Qinwen’s hands. “Bam! Whop! Pow!” The Melbourne arena reverberated with the pulsing sounds of Aryna’s explosive winners. Such an unflinching ferocity – one thought of Serena.

Zheng, who criticizes herself for too much on-court thinking, must have thought there had to be some way to absorb her foe’s power. But, truth be told, she had no answers. She dropped the first set 6-3 in just 33 minutes. And the second set wasn’t even that close.

Yes, Sabalenka blinked at the very end. As she faltered badly on four championship points, we briefly saw glimpses of the desperate sense of loss that had been such a poignant part of Sabalenka’s early career.

But this sublime athlete has evolved into an elite, imposing competitor, a force to be reckoned with. On her fifth match point, Aryna unleashed – what else? – a crosscourt winner to the open court to score a convincing 6-3, 6-2 win and become the first back-to-back Aussie champ since her fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and 2013, and just the fifth woman to win without dropping a set. Aryana had fulfilled the goal of her late father, who died at just age 42, by winning two Slams by the time she was 25.

Soon the singular Australian icon Evonne Goolagong was handing Sabalenka the championship trophy, and she was showing her girlish, giggly personality, which seems so distant from her severe on-court intensity.

“As usual my speech is gonna be weird – it’s not my super power,” Aryna laughed. Her delightful and daffy free-form comments soon went a bit off the rails, in stark contrast to her unflinching 76-minute display tonight. 

No wonder Mary Joe Fernandez offered a warning to the WTA universe: “With the tennis Aryna displayed these two weeks – look out, everyone!”

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