Aussie tennis great Jelena Dokic and reigning Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka have teamed up to raise funds for sufferers of domestic violence in an unexpected post-script to an epic semi-final at Melbourne Park.
Don’t let the straight-sets score line deceive you; Sabalenka’s 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 Australian Open semi-final win over American No.4 seed Coco Gauff was a see-sawing thriller that lived up to the billing that comes with two heavyweights in a last-four clash.
It means world No.2 Sabalenka has qualified for her second straight final at the Australian Open on Saturday night, when she will go in as the red-hot favourite to make it back-to-back titles.
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And she will go in with some goodwill from the Australian public, whose hearts were warmed when she was quick to jump at the chance to support women and children suffering from domestic violence.
After Sabalenka’s quarter-final win two nights ago, Dokic made a “weird” request — for one of the Belarusian’s towels.
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“This might be a weird question, last one,” Dokic said on Tuesday night.
“You’re winning so easy, you’re barely sweating … I see you’re taking these towels every match, you’ve got at least one more match … so now in front of 15,000 people you need to give me a towel because you’ve got too many.”
Sabalenka was laughing throughout and quickly produced a towel from her bag to give to Dokic.
Jelena Dokic interviews Aryna Sabalenka after the epic win. Credit: James D. Morgan/Getty Images
“From my heart to you,” she said before hugging Dokic.
On Thursday, Dokic followed up by asking for another towel — but this time with a twist.
“After your last match … you gave me a towel; they are very precious, everyone wants one, and I said, ‘You are winning so much, you probably have about 20 in your hotel room, so you can give me one — which you were so kind enough to give me’,” Dokic began.
“I’ll take another one, by the way. But what I want to get you to do, if you’re OK with it — can you sign it, because then we will auction it off for kids and women affected by domestic violence, is that OK?”
The crowd erupted in applause as Sabalenka went straight for her bag without hesitation.
Sabalenka had no hesitation in obliging. Credit: Stan Sport
She signed two towels as the crowd cheered in appreciation.
“That’s why we love you; you are such a fierce competitor on the court, and I don’t think people know just how kind and compassionate and giving you are, because as soon as I said it, you said, ‘I’ll give you another one’.
“So, thank you, thank you for what you do for women’s sport as well. You’re through to the Australian Open final for the second time in a row.”
Dokic famously escaped the tyranny of her abusive father’s autocratic control as a child and young adult.
The Croatian-born Aussie’s first book told the harrowing story of the physical and emotional abusive she suffered under the dictatorship of her father, Damir Dokic.
After losing last year’s US Open title decider to Gauff in New York, Sabalenka turned the tables with her victory over the American teenager.
Sabalenka is now a hot favourite to beat either Chinese 12th seed Zheng Qinwen or Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska and become the first player since her fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in 2013 to successfully defend their Open women’s crown.
Looking almost unstoppable, the 25-year-old world No.2 has yet to drop a set this campaign and showed enormous resolve in not only snapping Gauff’s 12-match grand slam winning streak but also the fourth seed’s unbeaten start to 2024.
“I was just ready for anything tonight and I think that was the key — and definitely your support guys,” Sabalenka said.
“Last time I played her (in New York), I didn’t have, I would say, almost any support.
“I was able to focus on myself and I was prepared that she’s going to move really good and she’s going to put all balls back to me and I just have to be ready to play an extra shot.”
Gauff won the season-opening WTA event in Auckland and had been hoping to become the first woman to capture back-to-back majors since Naomi Osaka completed the Australian Open-US Open double three years ago.
Instead, Sabalenka is now within a win of shedding her tag as a one-slam wonder on Saturday night after producing her best performance of the tournament.
Aryna Sabalenka has stormed into the Australian Open final by beating Coco Gauff in straight sets. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP
The second seed made a flying start, holding her first service game to love, while Gauff opened the night with two double-faults and was broken almost in the blink of an eye.
The American broke back to level at 2-2 only to drop three of the next four games to trail 5-3.
Sabalenka failed to serve it out, then missed a set point in the 10th game as Gauff roared to a 6-5 lead.
Alas, this time Gauff was unable to hold and paid the price as Sabalenka raised her game with a clutch tiebreaker to take an all-important one-set-to-love lead.
Six double-faults in the first set cruelled Gauff, but both players stepped up their serves in the second to slug it out with some fierce baseline rallies.
It was Sabalenka, though, who nabbed the only break of the set in the ninth game, before coolly closing out the match after one hour 42 minutes.
– With AAP