If you only watched one game of Australian Open 2023 and it happened to be the last one of the women’s final, you would be forgiven for thinking that the fortnight had been one wild ride for Aryna Sabalenka.
Sabalenka double-faulted long on an initial match point, saw two more evaporate through unforced errors, and eventually needed to save a break point before clinching a thriller against Elena Rybakina.
What was she thinking amid that eventful conclusion in Melbourne?
“Well, it’s going to be fun after the double-fault,” Sabalenka laughed afterwards.
“Of course I was a little bit nervous. I kept telling myself like, ‘Nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy, you just have to work for it, work for it till the last point’.”
Despite the late drama, describing Sabalenka’s fortnight as a roller-coaster ride worthy of Melbourne’s Luna Park wouldn’t be accurate.
The new-found calmness the 24-year-old spoke of throughout shone through, with the end of the 4-6 6-3 6-4 two-and-a-half hour finale an anomaly.
And of course, trying to win a first Grand Slam in a first Grand Slam final with a tight scoreline – against a Grand Slam champion – was going to be difficult for anyone.
Sabalenka fought through it, fitting for the Minsk native who has long sported a tiger tattoo on her lower left arm.
“It’s tough to explain what I’m feeling right now,” said Sabalenka. “Just super happy. Proud. I don’t know how to explain. It’s the best day of my life right now.”
While her past pedigree – owning Masters titles and making two appearances at the year-end WTA Finals – wouldn’t lead anyone to bat an eyelid about Sabalenka becoming a major winner, Australian Open 2022 would have.
It seems longer than 12 months ago, such has been the turnaround.
Sabalenka couldn’t find her serve back then.
Thirty-nine double faults came in her two build-up matches, then 56 more in her four outings at Melbourne Park that wrapped up with a defeat to Kaia Kanepi.
Now that one was wild, as Sabalenka saved four match points prior to the third-set tiebreak.
Her “(expletive) serve” she called it during AO 23, reflecting on last year. But working with a biomechanic expert significantly changed her fortunes.
Only 29 double faults in seven matches resulted on her way to hoisting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy. After hitting five in the first set against her fellow huge-hitter Rybakina, a mere two followed thereafter.
Deeper than that; in every match, Sabalenka registered more winners than unforced errors. Her tally on Saturday of 51 and 28 marked her biggest differential of the entire two weeks.
What a time for it.
“I would say that not many girls can put me really under the pressure,” said Rybakina, now 0-4 against Sabalenka. “Against her, it’s not easy because she has a great serve and she plays really aggressive. Her ball is coming very heavy.”
Away from technique and improving the serve, Sabalenka said a shift in her self-worth also played a massive role in her resurgence.
“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for a signature, I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for signature? I’m nobody. I’m a player. I don’t have a Grand Slam and all this stuff’,” said Sabalenka.
“I just changed how I feel. I start to respect myself more. I start to understand that actually I’m here because I work so hard and I’m actually good player.
“Just having this understanding that I’m a good player, I can handle a lot of emotions, a lot of things on court. Every time I had a tough moment on court, I was just reminding myself that I’m good enough to handle all this.”
During the difficult spell early last year, Sabalenka revealed that her coach Anton Dubrov offered to resign. She declined his request – and he was in tears post-match on Saturday.
With a major singles title to her name, more goals will arise for Sabalenka, including achieving the No.1 ranking – she’ll be back at No.2 on Monday – and adding to her Grand Slam haul.
Shorter term, she plans to return home to Miami after this fruitful Australian summer.
Even more in her immediate future is to celebrate by eating “good pizza,” “a lot of sweets” and maybe drinking a “little bit of champagne.”
Some bubbly seems appropriate for the bubbly Sabalenka, now a Grand Slam winner.
Source: Ravi Ubha