By: Jane Voigt
Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova had fun. Isn’t that what tennis is all about?
It can be, but not necessarily when competing for the women’s doubles championship at the Australian Open. But these two turned tradition on its head.
Pairing up for their first tournament, they served, volleyed, chipped and charged their giddy way through the draw to a 6-4, 7-6(5) win over No. 14 seeds, Yung-Jan Chan and Jie Zheng.
An all-American girl with an all-American smile, Mattek-Sands exploded with enthusiasm in press, “A lot of my family was up. I just Face-Timed them all. Called them all. It’s 3:00, 4:00 in the morning and everybody was up in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Florida. So it was pretty cool.”
The fact that an unseeded team making any kind of debut – let alone one on a major stage – won the title will not go unnoticed by tennis history. Only a year ago, Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil stunned the tennis world, defeating best-ever Mike and Bob Bryan in the finals at Wimbledon. It was also their inaugural pairing.
“I don’t know how often it’s happened,” Mattek-Sands began. “But, I mean, you get two great players playing together, I think a big part of it is me and Lucie are really good friends. Communication’s huge. Whether we were down in a match or up in a match we were having fun.”
Their decision to enter doubles began in the off-season over text messages. Safarova’s coach is friends with Mattek-Sands’s husband, Justin.
“It’s a pleasure to play with Bethanie,” Safarova said. “She’s a great doubles player. Always fun.”
Both women were also entered in the singles competition, Safarova becoming one of the seeds to stumble early. Coming up against a tough first-round opponent in Yaroslava Shvedova, the No. 16 seed lost by a hair, 6-4, 2-6, 8-6. Mattek-Sands, playing with a protected ranking, lost to World No. 3 Simona Halep in the third round, a great result for the American. She had lost in the first round in her three other appearances.
It’s been a tough few years for Mattek-Sands, who underwent hip surgery early last season. In 2013, she tore a medial collateral ligament in her knee. Currently ranked No. 258, she had been ranked as high as No. 40.
To add some quirk to this triumph, the two women didn’t practice doubles before or during the tournament.
“We practiced the day before we played singles here,” Lucie said. “But no doubles practice.”
“Actually we didn’t even really know which side we were going to play,” Mattek-Sands added.
This was Safarova’s tenth foray into women’s doubles Down Under. Last year she was ousted in the third round, previously her best result. But she has been accomplished doubles player elsewhere, owning four WTA career titles.
Both women are confident this win will lift their prospects in doubles and singles for the up-coming year.
“There’s a lot you can draw on for your singles,” Mattek-Sands began. “You work on returns. It’s a little different strategy, obviously. [But] there’s so many things you can work on in your doubles for your singles. I think both help each other.”
“Unseeded and looming” go hand-in-hand, too, when it comes to the men’s doubles final, which takes place immediately following the women’s singles final on Rod Laver Arena Saturday.
The final four: Fabio Fognini and Simone Bolelli, and Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut. The Italians versus the French.
More like a Davis Cup tie, the Italian pair have a 4-1 record in that international team competition. Last fall, though, Italy lost to Switzerland in the semifinals.
Fognini and Bolelli are primarily singles players, although the men have played in Melbourne on three prior occasions. Fognini is ranked No. 18 and Bolelli is ranked No. 48, with a high of 36 in 2009.
“We are happy for sure,” Fognini said, about their second Australian Open final.
Both teams fought from behind to win over seeded and more favored opponents in the semifinals. But, as witnessed in the women’s doubles, pairing singles players against formidable doubles teams sets up a tricky clash of styles.
Power and clean winners from the singles guys against finesse and refined tactics from the doubles guys.
“We made three or four unbelievable returns and that was key,” Bolelli said about their win over Jean-Julian Rojer and Horacio Tecau in the semis.
Mahut and Herbert bring a fresh combo to the court. Mahut is a serve and volley man on a singles court, and on a doubles court. His partner will fall in step with that rhythm. By contrast, the Italians will tend to remain in the back court and shoot from the hip, although Fognini has good net instincts.
Who will win? Why, the singles specialists, of course.
Who’s your pick for the men’s doubles title? Sound off in the comments!