MELBOURNE, Australia -- The reunion of Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic opened with major success right from the start.
The fifth-seeded Hungarian/French pairing shocked Russians Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, 6-4, 6-3, to claim the Australian Open Women’s Doubles title in their very first tournament back together since they ended their partnership after the WTA Finals in 2015.
"We started again after two years off, and to start with a win here in Australia is an incredible feeling," Babos said, during the trophy presentation.
"I was in tears, for sure, and it’s just amazing to play with you," she told her partner.
"Our spirit and our friendship together, it really helped," elaborated Babos during their post-match press conference. "We didn't start actually that well. In the beginning we had some tough moments, some tough matches, not playing the level what we gave today. This was the key, to stay positive and help each other on court, and voila."
Babos has now won her first Grand Slam title at senior level, after one loss in a mixed doubles championship and two defeats in women’s doubles title matches, including a loss partnering Mladenovic in the 2014 Wimbledon final to Italian duo Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.
It is the second Grand Slam Women’s Doubles title for Mladenovic, who also won Roland Garros in 2016 with compatriot Caroline Garcia. The Frenchwoman has two Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles as well.
No.2 seeds Makarova and Vesnina were prevented from completing the Career Grand Slam, after wins at Roland Garros in 2013, the 2014 US Open and Wimbledon in 2017. They also fell in the 2014 Australian Open final, to Errani and Vinci.
"You really played great, that’s the championship game you showed in the final," Vesnina said to her opponents after receiving the runner-up plate.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 26, 2018
It was a stunning performance from Babos and Mladenovic, who looked as though they had not missed a beat since their partnership went on hiatus just over two years ago. They were the more aggressive team, having 23 winners to the Russians' 12, and winning 70% of points on their first serve, while Makarova and Vesnina could only manage 59%.
"Separately we were also good, but I think together we're the best," Babos said to the media. "Me, specifically, I always played my best tennis with her in doubles."
The only prior encounter between the two teams had come back in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2015, which Makarova and Vesnina took in three sets. At the start of the match, it appeared as though the Russians still had their opponents' number, jumping out to an early 4-2 lead behind strong groundstrokes from the left-handed Makarova, and powerful volleying from the right-handed Vesnina.
But a difficult service game by Vesnina at 4-3 allowed Babos and Mladenovic to grab some momentum. A strong Babos forehand volley gave her and her French partner double break point, and they broke back for 4-4 after Makarova missed a volley two points later.
After Babos held easily, it was Makarova's turn to struggle on serve. A double fault put the Russians behind 0-30, and though they rebounded to 30-30, on the next point, Vesnina let a makeable ball go over her head, surprising Makarova, who was unable to recover and put a play on the shot, which had landed well in.
Following that moment of miscommunication, a successful Mladenovic forehand volley let the fifth seeds take the first set on the back of a four-game winning streak.
Makarova and Vesnina finally broke the Mladenovic serve in the first game of the second set, hoping to regroup and push the match to a deciding third set. Immediately thereafter, though, a long game on Vesnina's serve went the way of Babos and Mladenovic after Makarova punched a volley into the net down break point.
The teams exchanged breaks once more en route to a 3-3 tie, before big serving by Babos let her and Mladenovic survive a lengthy game to hold for 4-3.
The next game proved ultimately decisive, as a Makarova double fault, another lob by Babos which confounded the Russians, and a Mladenovic forehand winner quickly gave the French/Hungarian duo triple break point. The Russians saved two, but not the third, as another beautiful Mladenovic forehand volley gave her a chance to serve for the match and lead her partner to her first Grand Slam title.
Mladenovic, currently suffering through a 15-match losing streak in singles, was nervous at 5-3, falling behind 15-40 and giving the Russians two chances to get the match back on serve. But two miscues by Vesnina pushed the game to deuce, and two points later, a missed forehand well wide by Makarova gave Babos and Mladenovic the trophy after 80 minutes of play.
"How can I describe this?" Mladenovic mused during the press conference. "It's a Grand Slam title that I add to my career. It's something you cannot describe in a way. It's so emotional. It's great. When you live a moment like this, there is no reason why it couldn't work in singles. Obviously it's a lot of confidence, just positivity for me."