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A Dress Made of Three Million Feathers

By AJ Eccles

As Australian Open social channels began to release images of Aryna Sabalenka’s championship photo shoot, something in the universe shifted. It was a communal, psycho-spiritual thing. Synapses in the brains of tennis fans began to fire again, as if 13 sleepless nights of Aussie tennis had simply fallen away. There was nothing now but the photo shoot. Life was, suddenly and mercifully, a pink dress and a gondola.

Social media lit up immediately. Fashion divides.

The best of friends.

Sabalenka has recently become a master at repairing things. Her record at majors. Her serve. Few of us realized champions’ photo shoots were also in desperate need of a makeover. They are mundane fixer-uppers, and Aryna is exactly the right woman for the job. In Melbourne, Sabalenka opted for a puff-shoulder baby-doll pink dress, with floral frills splashed whimsically from collar to hem, and a sharp-heeled startle of electric blue on her feet. It was not the first time a champion had been photographed riding a gondola at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, but Aryna reinvigorated the form. Posing with her hands framing her face and staring fiercely into the lens as if challenging you to a rematch, Sabalenka could convincingly have invented the very concept of a gondola ride that morning.

This got me wondering what other photographic confections may be in store if Sabalenka were to continue a run at the majors. At Roland-Garros, she could scale the scaffolding at Notre Dame, poised atop metal girders in billowing lavender tulle reminiscent of the fields of Provence. In rainy London, why not adorn a yellow raincoat dress and pose with the Venus Rosewater Dish on the roof of a black cab, as if Paddington Bear were a Spice Girl? Here in New York, Sabalenka could lift the trophy on Saturday night and head to Prospect Park on Sunday for a plate of duck fat fries at Smorgasburg, allowing gravy drippings to elegantly paint a crisp white pantsuit.

Champagne wishes.
Whatever you do, don't step on them.

Perhaps these local adventures ring trivial, but tennis needs them. Though on-site attendance remained healthy, the TV viewing figures for the Australian Open this year were paltry. It’s unclear if Break Point—Netflix’s documentary that followed a select group of players on tour in 2022—has garnered enough interest to be renewed for a second season. Tennis needs a fresh crop of characters, and Sabalenka is dynamic on and off the court.

Observing Sabalenka during her exceptional run in Melbourne, I noted for the first time the excessive disgust with which she greets mistakes; her eyes rolling so far back in her head she comes dangerously close to injuring her neck. It dawned on me in that moment that Sabalenka is among tennis’ best embodiments of camp, that magnetic spirit Susan Sontag once described as “a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” This metaphorical dress would, incidentally, sit splendidly on Aryna in Melbourne next year.

Marketed properly, characters like Sabalenka can make an audience tune in. Not just for the matches, but for the surrounding ephemera that transform an occasional viewer into a devoted fan. Because the next time Aryna Sabalenka wins a major—and she will win another major—won’t you be excited to wake up the next morning and see what fresh delight she’ll serve in the photo-call?

With all due respect to Caroline Wozniacki, she didn't bring nearly the same élan to this project.
See.

Above: Aryna Sabalenka takes the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup on a pleasure cruise. (All photos Getty) 

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