After the day’s play had concluded and the evening session had yet to begin, I saw Destanee Aiava and her family at the coffee shop outside Rod Laver Arena. Destanee was flanked by friends who appeared to be supporting her on unsteady feet. An hour or so before, the 17yr old Australian was on centre court for the first time, facing women’s world number one and top seed, Simona Halep.
She had Halep 5-2 in the first set in what was looking like another Australian Open upset when she called for the trainer, holding her chest. The crowd were naturally concerned. She complained that she couldn’t breathe. Destanee took a medical time out away from the court and although she returned to play out the match she seemed out of sorts and succumbed to Halep 7-6 6-1.
Destanee later said she was fine but had felt ‘anxious’ closing the first set, looking short of breath. She earned high praise though when Halep compared her to Serena Williams in her post match interview.
It’s easy to forget that Destanee is just 17yrs old and fresh out of junior tennis. This was her first ever main draw match at a Grand Slam event and what a way to start!
A Melbourne girl making her debut at her home Slam, in Round One, facing – as the luck of the draw would have it – the number one seed. Add to that a passionate centre court crowd and a national and international television audience and I’d say that amounts to a fair bit of pressure. What an introduction to your professional tennis career. Despite the result, then being compared to Serena Williams? That’s a big day.
Ashleigh Barty will take centre court tonight as soon as some upstart named Roger Federer finishes his evening match. Ash famously left tennis a while back for the Womens Big Bash League playing for the Brisbane Heat. An incredibly talented junior tennis player mentored by Evonne Goolagong, but even that wasn’t enough to keep her on the tennis court.
Tennis is an isolating and demanding sport. They call it the tour but it’s no holiday. Players spend more time on planes, trains and automobiles than a gap year backpacker and many are probably living on just as little money and having a lot less fun. If I were 17 that’s what I’d be doing. Not playing tennis on centre court in front of a global TV audience.
Destanee’s destiny (someone had to say it…) is completely in her hands, and also in the supportive hands of her friends and family. It’s also in hands of the broader tennis family who are all no doubt so proud of her today. The pathway from junior tennis to senior tennis is tough, but the pathway to adulthood is just as hard even if you do serve like Serena Williams.