MELBOURNE: Aryna Sabalenka’s serve was in pieces a year ago and she was having to scrape through fraught battles in Australia as her fragile emotions were laid painfully bare.
Now she is a Grand Slam champion after defeating Elena Rybakina in three high-quality sets to win the Australian Open on Saturday.
The 24-year-old Belarusian dropped her first set of 2023 in the final in Melbourne but roared back to beat the reigning Wimbledon champion 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Sabalenka has now won all 11 matches she has contested this season, with big-serving Rybakina the latest to succumb to her power game and new-found mental strength.
It is a stark contrast to a year ago.
Then, Sabalenka’s serve and nerves were her biggest enemies. She was reduced to tears on court at a tournament in the lead-up to last year’s Australian Open.
In 2022 she dished up 428 double faults, 151 more than any other player on the women’s tour.
But the shaky serve that has haunted her so badly in the past was rock-solid on her run to a maiden Grand Slam crown.
On Saturday in front of a capacity crowd of 15,000 at Rod Laver Arena she held serve and nerve on her fourth championship point, before dissolving into tears — of a happy variety this time.
The marked change in fortunes was reward for a year of hard work with her coaches, a sports psychologist and a biomechanical specialist.
The confidence it has given Sabalenka has allowed her to find a zen-like peace while losing none of her inner competitive tiger.
The combination means she can now get herself out of a crisis, as she did when losing the first set of the final and in digging herself out of a hole in her semi-final against Magda Linette.
“I was trying to scream less after some bad points or some errors,“ Sabalenka said after defeating Linette.
“I was just trying to hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point.
“I’m still screaming ‘C’mon!’ and all that stuff, just less negative emotions.”
‘My own psychologist’
She did not have it all her own way at Melbourne Park, but the draw opened up for the fifth seed after many of the other top-10 seeds bowed out early in a series of shocks.
Sabalenka admitted she had to overcome “a lot of really tough moments” in her quarter-final against unseeded Donna Vekic, before battling through in 1hr 49min.
Sabalenka faced break points in all of her service games against Vekic, saving a remarkable 12 of the 14 she faced, more proof of the huge difference from a year ago.
She went out in the fourth round in 2022.
Sabalenka feels so in control these days that she has dispensed with her sports psychologist.
“To be honest, I decided to stop working with a psychologist. I realised that nobody other than me will help,“ she explained to reporters this week.
“I feel like I have to deal with that by myself because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it’s not fixing my problem.
“I’m my own psychologist,“ she laughed. – AFP