Australian Open 2019: Astra Sharma has served her way to the mixed doubles final, but more success awaits in the future

Astra Sharma likes using the word ‘unreal’, and she always looks like she truly means it.

When asked how it felt to win match point in her first ever Grand Slam main draw appearance, she said it was unreal. When asked what it would be like to play on a big court like Margaret Court Arena, she again said it would be unreal. And as she and her partner John-Patrik “JP” Smith have been tearing up the mixed doubles draw at the 2019 Australian Open, defeating one quality team after another, Sharma has been constantly saying the experience is unreal.

For all those who watched her play in her formative years though, none of her meteoric success would seem unreal. On the contrary, they’ve been predicting it for a long time.

Born in Singapore to an Indian father and a Chinese mother, Sharma migrated to Australia after her family realised she and her siblings would have more opportunities to participate in sports there. Although she dabbled in both tennis and football early on, the former turned out to be her true calling; one of Sharma’s earliest coaches in Australia thought that she was the best athlete he had ever seen on the court.

 Australian Open 2019: Astra Sharma has served her way to the mixed doubles final, but more success awaits in the future

Astra Sharma reached the final of 2019 Australian Open in mixed doubles in her maiden Grand Slam draw appearance. AFP

She decided to pursue tennis full-time in high school, even competing in a few ITF tournaments, but a serious ankle injury forced her to change track. She then moved to the US to take up a course in medicine at Vanderbilt University, but kept her tennis dream alive by competing in college tournaments.

Geoff McDonald, her coach at Vanderbilt, has gone on record in the past saying that “she’s got pretty much what you need” and that she is “good enough to be a top 50 player”.

Sharma has certainly been putting on a good impression of a top 50 player lately.

After losing in the wildcard playoffs for the Australian Open late last year, her subsequent request for a direct wildcard was turned down by Tennis Australia. Not to be deterred, she entered the qualifying draw, but was dealt another curveball: her first round opponent was none other than two-time Grand Slam finalist Vera Zvonareva.

They say successful people chart their own destiny. Despite the universe seemingly conspiring against her at every step, Sharma somehow managed to overcome all the obstacles and get to where she wanted: at a Grand Slam.

She defeated Zvonareva in the first round of qualifying, came back from a set down in the second round, and saved match points before prevailing in the third and final round. A berth at the Australian Open was never supposed to be hers, but there she was, playing fellow Australian Priscilla Hon in the first round of women’s singles.

She won that match too, which many would consider a resounding success irrespective of what happened next. How many can claim to have fought against so many odds and yet escaped a let-down when the spotlight was the brightest? Sharma played like a pro despite having no Grand Slam experience whatsoever, and her reward was a second round match against the established Maria Sakkari.

Sharma’s singles run would end at that stage, as Sakkari outmaneuvered her to record a straight sets win. The 23-year-old also lost in the first round of the women’s doubles event, as she and Isabelle Wallace went down to the experienced team of Jennifer Brady and Alison Riske. But little did she know her fairytale had only hit a speed bump, and that it was just about to start gaining steam again.

When Sharma had entered the singles and women’s doubles draws, she had no intention of playing in the mixed doubles category. But mid-way through the tournament she was casually asked if she wanted to, and she said yes. It was something that had come completely out of the blue; even her choice of partner wasn’t voluntary.

“I had no clue because I didn’t even think I was playing mixed. And then right before my second round singles match Nicole Pratt came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you wanna play mixed?’ I was like, ‘Sure’, and the next thing she was like, ‘Okay cool, you’re playing with JP’,” Sharma said at her press conference yesterday.

JP, who was sitting next to her while she said this, interjected with a chuckle, “Luckily she said yes, otherwise I’d have been out of here a week ago.”

He was probably speaking in jest, but there’s some truth in there too. Sharma has been absolutely on-point in all her matches so far, and has even carried a misfiring Smith at times – a sentiment shared by Nick Kyrgios on Twitter. Whether it’s with her serve or with her forehand, Sharma has been quick to establish control in a majority of the points, often ending them with spectacular winners.

That her forehand is a strength is no surprise; Sharma has long considered it to be her biggest weapon, and has constructed her entire game around it. Her forehand is quintessentially modern, but also uniquely penetrating; she hits it with so much heavy topspin that it can push any opponent way back behind the baseline. In a few exchanges during the mixed doubles matches she has even outhit male players off that wing, which is not something you see very often.

But what has truly caught everyone’s eye is Sharma’s serve. With a smooth take-back and a high ball toss, she has been cranking up the pace on her serve – even recording 196 kph in her first round singles match. She and JP have been winning nearly the same amount of free service points, with a speed of 175-180 being the norm for her on the first serve. When you consider that even the likes of Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova and Naomi Osaka hover around that same speed range, you know Sharma has got a pretty special weapon in her armory.

She is also very quick around the court, and has an instinct for attack. Her coaches over the years have been trying to make her an all-court player rather than a baseline basher, and you can see the effect of that in the way she poaches volleys at the net and puts away high balls with ease.

Her backhand is a bit of a rally shot though, and it remains to be seen whether she can remain consistent with her attacking approach against top quality players. But there is little doubt that Sharma has the ingredients to be a regular presence on the WTA tour, and can maybe even crack the top 50 – as her coach foresaw all that time ago.

Her partner JP has seen her play from close quarters, and even he seems convinced of her vast potential. “Her future is very bright, so it’s great I can play with her now, so that I can play with her in the future (too),” he said after the two of them won their quarterfinal match against Jamie Murray and Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

In the semi-final Sharma and JP dashed the hopes of second seeds Bruno Soares and Nicole Melichar, after which JP was even more effusive in his praise for Sharma. “I think Astra is fearless out there. She goes for her shots, goes for her serve, not afraid to take over the net. It’s pretty easy out there when someone plays with so much confidence on the court.”

Sharma may be finding it difficult to digest all the ‘unreal’ things that are happening in her very first Grand Slam, but as JP said, she has been showing real confidence when it truly matters. She has looked completely at home in her home Slam, playing with nerveless discipline and unswerving courage. And she now has a finals appearance to show for her efforts.

She can have more than that, if the Australian pair defeat Rajeev Ram and Barbora Krejcikova in the final that will take place tomorrow. But even if they don’t, Sharma would now know that she belongs to the highest levels of the sport, matching serves and forehands with the best in the business.

So what if it is unreal? Reality is overrated anyway.

Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 21:56:22 IST