Five things we learned on Day 12

  • Suzi Petkovski

1. Sam Stosur has resilience …

A perennial first-round Melbourne loser in singles (this year to teenager Dayana Yastremska), Sam Stosur on Friday teamed with best mate Zhang Shuai for a rewarding and deserving victory in the women’s doubles final, weeks out from her 35th birthday.

MORE: Stosur and Zhang claim the women’s doubles title

The unseeded Aussie-Chinese pair – truth-in-advertising champions for the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific – overcame title-holders and No.2 seeds Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos 6-3 6-4, having earlier eliminated top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova in the quarterfinals. 
 

Stosur’s laudable resilience was key to her first Australian title since the mixed doubles with fellow Aussie Scott Draper 14 years ago. The athletic Queenslander has weathered many traumatic losses in her career – not least here in 2006, when she and Lisa Raymond had match points in the doubles final against China’s Yan Zi and Zheng Jie.

MORE: Five things we learned on Day 11

“It kinda did come into my mind,” Stosur admitted when she walked out to serve for the title 13 years on. “It’s probably natural to remember. You can acknowledge it but don’t stress about it, just get back to business. It was a great game to finish.

“You never know if you’re going to be in a Grand Slam final ever again. Yeah, to now 13 years later be holding this one instead of the runner-up [trophy] is a really good feeling.”

Stosur’s fighting performance was a microcosm of her career. She never dropped serve, braving five break points in the opening game to hold firm. The defending champions kept pressuring and took a 3-1 lead before Stosur and Zhang swept five straight games.

Serving for the set, Stosur misfired with three double-faults, but again held. In the final game, serving for the title at 5-4, the Aussie double-faulted on match point and faced a break point before coming good in a fierce final game, one rally going to 25 shots.

In their fifth major together, Stosur and Zhang, 30, hummed with energy and positivity from the outset, and looked a dream team in their identical outfits. They reversed the result of their US Open semifinal against Mladenovic and Babos.
 
Fans may have been left frustrated by Stosur’s losses in the past but they haven’t abandoned her; quite the contrary, her doubles run has attracted big social media love. 

Stosur and Zhang’s Wednesday night 7-5 6-4 7-5 semifinal win over Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova, from 5-1 down in the opening set, drew close to a million TV viewers on Channel 9.
 

2. … and she can be persuasive

At Beijing in late 2015, Stosur and her Florida neighbour Zhang had dinner together. “Maybe I’m retire after here,” Zhang told her Aussie friend. The then 26-year-old limped toward the end of the season ranked 186 and was an agonising 0-14 in Grand Slam main draws.

“After the dinner, Sam send to me long message,” Zhang recounted after their emotional doubles title win on Friday. “I’m starting to think, ‘OK, play one more tournament, Australian Open, and after I retire.”

The rest is history. Zhang went from qualifier to quarterfinalist at Australian Open 2016; her first Grand Slam win was over No.2 Simona Halep. Stosur was courtside, ostensibly for her friend’s farewell; instead the Tianjin native bettered Stosur’s best showing at her home Slam. Zhang went on to a career-high No.23 ranking in 2016.

“Really thanks for Sam give me the one chance to keep going,” said Zhang. “Really important message. So yeah, I make it. We make the champion now.” 
 

3. Practice isn’t everything

Women’s finalist Petra Kvitova hasn’t been on the practice court at all here at Melbourne Park, revealed her coach Jiri Vanek.

It’s proving a winning formula, the Czech shotmaker streaking into Saturday’s final without losing a set against Magdalena Rybarikova, Irina-Camelia Begu, Belinda Bencic, Amanda Anisimova, No.15 seed Ash Barty and Danielle Collins.

MORE: No.1 ranking ranks second for women’s finalists

The world No. 8 had such a draining Sydney final against Barty, winning 1-6 7-5 7-6, that her team decided she would be rested between the first and second rounds here. Kvitova responded so well, conceding just nine games in her first two wins, that her team rewarded her with another day off. 

“We make another day off and she start to play great, as well,” Vanek recalled. “Now we cannot change it.”
 

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Kvitova's match play has been more than enough in Melbourne

4. Osaka’s coach says fightbacks give Japanese the edge

No.4 seed Naomi Osaka has taken a tougher road to the final, coming from 7-5 3-0 down against Hsieh Su-Wei and also going three sets with No.13 seed Anastasija Sevastova and No.7 Karolina Pliskova in a power-hitting semi.

Her coach Sascha Bajin, named 2018 Coach of the Year in the wake of Osaka’s US Open victory, believes Osaka’s comeback victories put her in good stead for a first meeting with Kvitova in the first Australian Open final for both.

MORE: Osaka’s ‘unreal’ new reality 

“Me personally, I like the matches where things don’t go so well and she ends up winning,” said Bajin, who witnessed plenty of quality comebacks from the courtside box of Serena Williams

“You know, both of them are very dangerous off the first two, three shots. But I believe once the rally keeps going, Naomi with her current state of mind and physique has the upper hand.”
 

5. Seven means heaven for Novak

Novak Djokovic went 7-0 in semis at Melbourne Park on Friday night, even more dominant in his 6-0 6-2 6-2 manhandling of Lucas Pouille than Rafael Nadal’s 6-2 6-4 6-0 monstering of Stefanos Tsitsipas in the first semifinal.

MORE: Djokovic jumps into seventh AO decider

The world No.1 posted the scary-impressive numbers of 24 winners versus five unforced errors.

“Definitely one of the best matches I ever had on this court,” said the 31-year-old. The Serb’s shock fourth-round exit to Hyeon Chung a year ago, and subsequent elbow surgery, are rapidly receding into the distant past. 
 

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Novak was in no mood to hang around on Friday night

First-time major semifinalist Pouille eliminated Nadal at the 2016 US Open. But he couldn’t even find a way into his first meeting with Djokovic. “When he’s playing like this,” said the No.24-ranked Frenchman, following his baptism-by-fire, “yeah, he’s the best in the world for sure.”

For all the talk of generational shift, the 2019 final is between the top two men. Seven years on from their near six-hour epic, the longest Grand Slam decider in history, they meet again.

“My biggest rival,” acknowledged Djokovic, who leads the Spaniard 27-25 in in their titanic head-to-head history. “Some of the matches we had were great turning points in my career. Those kind of encounters have made me the player I am. What more can you ask for? This is where you want to be.”

More history awaits both men Sunday.

Undefeated in six Australian Open finals, Djokovic would overtake Roy Emerson and Roger Federer with an all-time record seventh title in Melbourne. He would also pass Pete Sampras with a 15th Grand Slam title, moving to No.3 behind Federer and Nadal.

MORE: 'The matches you live for': Novak relishes Rafa challenge

Victory for Nadal would deliver an 18th major and double career Grand Slam – not since Rod Laver has any man managed to win all the majors at least twice.