It was tennis reminiscent of the big-serving, high-velocity duels between Serena and Venus Williams. It was also a significant departure from last year’s Australian Open, where Ashleigh Barty ended a 44-year singles drought for the host country by winning the title, putting her court craft and crisply sliced one-handed backhand to work before shocking the tennis world (and Australia) by retiring in March at age 25.
But Barty, now married to Garry Kissick and expecting their first child, has hardly avoided the Australian Open, making numerous public appearances this year and walking onto Rod Laver Arena before Saturday’s final with the Akhurst Memorial Cup in hand.
“I can honestly look myself in the mirror and say I gave everything to tennis, but it gave me back so much more in return,” she said in a recent interview. “And all that really starts from the people I was surrounded with. So much of my success is our success. It genuinely is.”
Sabalenka could relate to that on Saturday as she shared a post-victory moment with her team and then watched from afar as her normally stoic coach, Anton Dubrov, put a white towel to his face and sobbed in the player box.
Sabalenka said she had never seen Dubrov cry and explained that last season, in February, as she struggled with the yips on her second serve and her confidence and reached a point where she could not even openly discuss the problem, Dubrov offered his resignation.
“There were moments last year when he said, ‘I think I’m done, and I think I cannot give you something else, and you have to find someone else,’” Sabalenka said in an interview with Nine Network. “And I said: ‘No, you’re not right. It’s not about you. We just have to work through these tough moments, and we’ll come back stronger.’”
Her performance on Saturday was incontrovertible proof that they had succeeded, with the help of a biomechanical expert but also Sabalenka’s own resilience. She is 11-0 this year and though she double-faulted seven times in the final, including on her first match point, she also repeatedly shrugged off any jitters (and the palpable concern of the big crowd) and came up with aces or service winners on subsequent serves.