Young and powerful, Destanee Aiava on the brink of a breakthrough at Australian Open

With power on both wings and a go-for-broke style, 16-year-old Destanee Aiava has become a big hit in Australia heading into the year's first Grand Slam. EPA/Dave Hunt

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Eight years ago -- when she was 8 years old -- Australian Destanee Aiava sat near the top of Rod Laver Arena and her voice grew hoarse.

She was screaming for her favorite player, Serena Williams, in the Australian Open final. Williams roared herself, a 6-0, 6-3 winner over Dinara Safina for the 2009 title.

"I don't think she's far off from where the top players are. She's taking the confidence from what she's done and just lifted her game."

Nicole Pratt

At the WTA event in Brisbane this past week, where world No. 1 and reigning Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber was the top seed and US Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova was the eventual champion, Aiava produced a slew of tabloid-ready headlines when she became the first player in women's tennis born in the new millennium to win a main-draw match.

"I've been a little overwhelmed by it all," the 16-year-old said. Pausing, she added, "But I guess I'll have to get used to that."

Next week -- no matter if she wins a match or not -- she'll be the first player born in 2000 or after to compete in any of tennis' biggest four events when she takes to the court at the Australian Open as a wild card. She's Australia's reigning junior champion, a title she picked up just a few weeks ago.

"I'm surprised," said Nicole Pratt, a coach with Tennis Australia who has worked with Destanee, who is coached primarily by her mother and trained by her father.

"In the past, I've seen signs, but ... my eyes opened up when she played the finals of the [Australian junior event]. I don't think she's far off from where the top players are. She's taking the confidence from what she's done and just lifted her game. How can you not be surprised?"

"I couldn't really imagine it," Aiava said of what she would have thought of her own run just two months ago.

It was ... Destanee

Aiava grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne to parents of Samoan descent. Her father is a gym owner who specializes in kickboxing and boxing, and her mother has taken on duties as her day-to-day coach.

In 2005, when she was 5, Aiava first watched Serena on TV and told her parents that she wanted to be a tennis player.

"I was, like, 'I want to become No. 1 in the world,' " Aiava told reporters in Brisbane last week. "And they're like, 'Oh, tennis?' They were like, 'Oh, we don't know anything about tennis.' "

But that didn't stop them, and by age 11 things were "serious" with Aiava's tennis. She entered Tennis Australia's junior program and had some of the top coaches in the country looking after her game, but her mother, Rosie, maintained her status as chief coach.

"She's really hard on me, but I think that helps a lot," Aiava says about her mother and coach. "[It's] so I don't get like too complacent, you know."

After Aiava won her first-round match in Brisbane against American veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands with an ace on match point, the teen and her mom took to the practice court. Her serve needed more work.

"She said, 'Get back out on the practice court. We've got a lot to work on,' " Destanee said.

Teen titan?

Tabloid culture in Australia has been wooed by the arrival of Aiava, but teenage success in tennis has been rare in the last 10 years. Age eligibility rules now mean that any player under 18 cannot play a full schedule (17 tournaments a year, that is), and the growing physicality of the game has made it even more challenging for a youngster to break through.

"I said to my coach, I have double age as hers," said Svetlana Kuznetsova, who is a two-time major champion at 31. "It's crazy. I used to be the younger one."

Kuznetsova ended Aiava's four-match winning streak (three in qualifying, one in the main draw) in Brisbane, but then sang the teenager's praises.

"[It's] very important what she's gonna be doing the next [few] years," explained Kuznetsova, who won the US Open in 2005 at age 19. "She has lots of power and athleticism in her ... She has potential, you know. That aside, many girls have potential. The importance is next few years to work on it."

Aiava is finishing her junior and senior years of high school via online courses over the next three years. She and her three best friends have a Facebook chat group where they debate music and TV, and she spends most of her days at Melbourne's famed Kooyong tennis venue, training with her mom, then breaking off for training sessions with her dad in the boxing gym or at the beach.

The last few months things have happened quickly: Behind booming power on both wings, Aiava made the finals of $25,000-level ITF Pro Circuit events (tennis' version of the minor leagues) in March and then September, and then punched her ticket to the Australian Open by winning the 18-and-under national title in December.

"It's all just clicked," said Pratt, who has helped guide 22-year-old Australian Daria Gavrilova, now ranked 25th in the world. "Destanee has that raw power. We saw it with Serena and Venus at a young age; it's just this physicality. It helps her sense of belief that she can match anyone out there. The last couple of months she's believing in her game more, especially her serve and forehand. Those are her shots."

Pratt continued: "It's difficult for players to get themselves into the points when she's on and confident. She's playing off of feel. She's going out and getting it. She has a killer instinct."

Australia awaits

There is a chance -- though it's slim -- that Destanee could face her hero, Serena, in the first round. Aiava's goal, however, is to make Round 2.

She remembers being 5 and watching Serena, eyes glued to the TV.

"I think it was just her vibe ... Like, I couldn't feel it from the other side of the TV, but it was just, like, her energy, and that kind of drew me to the sport."

"I've been a little overwhelmed by it all. But I guess I'll have to get used to that."

Destanee Aiava

In 2011, an Australian named Ashleigh Barty won junior Wimbledon at the age of 15. A promising player with touch and feel that led many to call her "the next Martina Hingis," she left the game in 2014 due to ongoing pressures and a glaring media spotlight. She began a gradual comeback to tennis in 2016, and last week lost to Kerber in Brisbane.

"From what I learned, you just have to take it slow," Barty explained, offering advice for Aiava. "For me, things happened very quickly, and we sort of weren't able to shut that down as much. I think, for Destanee, she's got the right people around her and the right family around her.

"For her, she has to be able to take it step by step. And if the success comes, fantastic, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. She just has to take it day by day and enjoy the journey."

Aiava said she didn't even bother checking her phone as it exploded with messages of congratulations during Brisbane, so -- much like a few weeks ago -- she can't imagine if she wins a match (or more) at the Australian Open. The world No. 388 knows it's a long road.

"I'm really looking forward to playing my favorite Grand Slam," she said.

Would that 8-year-old who was screaming for Serena Williams from the top of Rod Laver Arena have believed her life at this moment? The year's first Grand Slam? With her name in the main draw?

"I didn't think I would be playing tennis now," she said. "I really enjoyed [Brisbane]. I've loved the support of the crowd. It's been a good experience. I'm taking a lot out of it this week. ... I think having a lot of confidence in my game now."