Serena comparison gives Destanee confidence
AUSTRALIAN teenager Destanee Aiava may have lost her opening round Australian Open clash to world No. 1 Simona Halep, but her hitting power has drawn comparisons to world great Serena Williams.
The big-hitting 17-year-old pushed Halep to the limit on Rod Laver Arena, holding set points and serving for the opening set before the Romanian fought back to record a 7-6 (7-5) 6-1 win.
Sam Smith was the first to make the comparison.
"The only other 17-year-old I've seen hit the ball this hard is Serena Williams," Smith said on Channel 7.
Halep agreed post-match, declaring the teenager shares similarities to the greatest of all-time.
"I can say she is a little bit like Serena," Halep said. "She hits the ball very strong and she looks like her, she's a powerful girl."
The young rising star says the comparison will stick with her for some time.
"The fact she referenced me to Serena gives me a lot of confidence in myself. I feel honoured, as well, especially coming from her, being the best player in the world right now," Aiva said.
"So I'm going to take a lot of confidence out of that match. Just being able to push her to 7-6, being 5-2 up, I feel great about myself, how I played. Hopefully I can go a little bit further next time."
"I'm only 17. I am going to take a lot out of this match,".
Aiava has come a long way in just over a year since her most pressing domestic issue was negotiating mobile phone access.
In the Aiava's Noble Park home, the tennis prodigy's phone had to be turned off by 7pm - no exceptions.
Twelve months on, mobile access is no longer the issue. Fame, with all its benefits and curses, is now Aiava's challenge.
And so is tactical discretion and grasping golden opportunities when they emerge.
They don't come any better than having Halep on the ropes.
At 17, Aiava is Williams in miniature. A strapping athlete with ballistic armoury.
But she is yet to acquire the record-breaking American's tactical poise and accuracy.
Hence the decline from 5-2 in the first set and 3-1 in the tiebreak to a sobering 7-6 (7-5) 6-1 defeat in the biggest match of the teenager's career.
"I just got really anxious and started hyper-ventilating a bit," said Aiava after she called a time out at 5-2 up in the first set.
"I actually didn't remember the score because I was so out of it."
Top seed Halep doubled as a human backboard to Aiava, delivering a salutary lesson in grand slam warfare.
The only shots that matter are those which find their mark.
Power is sometimes just window dressing.
Aiava is already the first player born this century to win a main draw match on the WTA Tour.
She had another large lump of history within her sights when she dominated Halep early.
The Victorian also led the tiebreak, only to evaporate in a haze of ragged unforced errors.
But she proved she belongs in the highest arena of all.
Aiava was forced to take a medical time-out in the opening set and had her shoulder and blood pressure checked.
She appeared visibly exhausted at times as temperatures soared during the one hour and 51-minute epic.
Halep had an injury scare of her own early in the second set when she rolled her ankle.
She took a medical time-out for treatment but moved freely to reach the second round.
"I was actually stressed a little bit because two years in a row I lost first round, so I didn't want to do the third one," Halep said.
The daughter of Samoan parents, Rosie and Mark, Aiava was named Destanee because of personal upheaval surrounding parents before she was born.
Originally interested in soccer, her admitted selfishness had her dumped from the team because she refused to pass the ball.
Her imposing physique is a result of genetics and conditioning.
Mark Aiava is a former powerlifter, who coaches martial arts. Rosie is a former rugby player and kickboxer.
Despite her background, tennis became the next best option.
Six years ago, when coached by former dual junior Wimbledon champion Andrea Stoltenberg, Aiava represented Australia at the Longines Future Tennis Aces tournament in Paris - and won.
The prize was a hit with Steffi Graf.
A multiple winner of junior titles, Aiava has made a swift ascent but there have been hurdles.
Mental struggles emerged last season and again last week with a frustrated performance at the Kooyong Classic.
Against Halep, opportunity came and went in a heartbeat - but, with it, came a lesson Aiava will ultimately use to her benefit.
Halep will play Eugenie Bouchard in the second round.