MELBOURNE, Australia - Samantha Stosur and Zhang Shuai overcame a slow start to wrest the Australian Open doubles crown from defending champions and No.2 seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic 6-3, 6-4, completing a dream fortnight for the unseeded pair.
In 2015, Zhang had considered retirement from the sport after a spell of poor form. It was her good friend Stosur who persuaded her to continue, with a fairytale run to the quarterfinals at the 2016 Australian Open immediately following for the Chinese player. And four years on, the pair are Grand Slam champions together.
Stosur becomes the first home winner of the title since Alicia Molik's triumph in 2005 alongside Svetlana Kuznetsova - but the win also marks a long-awaited milestone for the Australian. Not only does it exorcise the demons of her former appearance in the Melbourne final in 2006, in which she and partner Lisa Raymond held two championship points before falling to Yan Zi and Zheng Jie, but it is the first WTA-level final that the 34-year-old has won on home soil in her career: Stosur's only previous title in Australia was the Sydney doubles crown in 2005 alongside Bryanne Stewart, with the local duo handed a walkover in the final by Elena Dementieva and Ai Sugiyama.
Stosur also returns to the Grand Slam winners' circle in doubles for the third time overall - and first time since Roland Garros 2006, the second of her major crowns with Lisa Raymond as one of the most formidable teams of the mid-'00s, one that garnered Stosur 61 weeks as doubles World No.1. Zhang, meanwhile, becomes a Grand Slam champion for the first time, as well as the first Chinese doubles victor in Melbourne since Yan and Zheng. As a team, she and Stosur are now on a 10-match winning streak: having partnered each other intermittently since 2013, their partnership really took off in the latter half of 2018 with a run to the US Open semifinals - where they lost to Babos and Mladenovic - before capturing their first title together in Hong Kong in October.
An epic 12-minute service hold for Stosur in which her team fended off three break points was a good start - but one that the Franco-Hungarian pair swiftly overturned, with Mladenovic proving particularly sharp at net as they responded by breaking Zhang to take a 3-1 lead.
But Stosur and Zhang's rollercoaster semifinal win over Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova would have sharpened the duo up for dramatic momentum shifts, and they would come roaring back to reel off five games in a row. Aggressive returning and firm volleying from Zhang pressured the Babos serve in the sixth game - and despite Mladenovic again showing off breathtaking reflexes at net, Stosur would finally find a way past her to seize the break back.
Suddenly under the cosh, the Frenchwoman coughed up her own serve with a double fault in the eighth game - and although Stosur sealing the first set would be a nervy affair, with three double faults coming off the World No.69's racquet, including on her first set point, Zhang would come through to hammer away a smash on the second.
Throughout much of the second set, it was the defending champions who appeared more secure on serve, while the Australia-Chinese pair repeatedly got dragged into multi-deuce tussles. But although Stosur and Zhang seemed shakier - twice, they lost points after simultaneously leaving a ball for the other to retrieve - they were also clutch when they had to be, Stosur finding her biggest serves and Zhang upping the ante at net on key points. Ultimately, the frustration would tell for Babos and Mladenovic, the WTA Finals champions ending the day with just one break point conversion out of 11 chances.
Their teamwork could also be smooth and harmonious: the Hong Kong champions moved perfectly in sync to seal a hold for 1-1, while they would capture the set's crucial break on the Mladenovic serve in the seventh game with a concurrent move forwards off a heavy Stosur forehand, Zhang putting away the resultant volley.
Serving for a Grand Slam championship at home was always likely to be an adventure for Stosur, and there were groans from the crowd as she committed her seventh double fault on her first championship point. But although it was Zhang who had supported her over the finishing line of the first set, this time Stosur rose to the occasion herself. The 2011 US Open singles champion fended off another break point with a smash, brought up a second championship point after ending a marvellous 25-shot rally with a forehand volley winner - and this time emerged on top of a heavy-hitting baseline battle with Babos, with the Hungarian going long with a backhand.