FORT WORTH -- Aryna Sabalenka did not get the Hollywood ending that she was hoping for at the WTA Finals, but after battling through her toughest season to make the biggest final of her career, she was able to keep a healthy perspective on her season.
"I learned how to lose this season," Sabalenka said after her 7-6(4), 6-4 loss to Caroline Garcia in Monday's final. "Before I used to be super aggressive after tough losses and now I can accept the loss. I think for me that's really important because it's not only about tennis. It's also about being a good person. I feel like I'm becoming a better person and this is the most important thing."
Sabalenka began the year as the No.2-ranked player but took the serving yips that began to take root in her game at last year's WTA Finals into the new year. She spent the first three months of the season frequently in double-digits in double faults. She wasn't just losing matches. She was losing them badly.
But instead of feeling sorry for herself, Sabalenka kept plugging away. By the time the clay season rolled around, she was finding her game again and learning how to mitigate the damage done by her misfiring serve. She left no stone unturned, even hiring a biomechanical specialist to help her during the summer hard-court season. The result was a run to her third major semifinal at the US Open, where she challenged but ultimately buckled against Iga Swiatek.
"I can lose, I can learn, and I can move on and keep working," Sabalenka said. "Before [after losses], I was out for the week. I was practicing, but I wasn’t there because I was thinking a lot about the last match. Basically, I’m getting more professional."
Sabalenka rebounded from her straight-set loss to Maria Sakkari in the group stage to beat Jessica Pegula to advance to the semifinals. There, she put all the lessons learned in her four previous losses to Swiatek to avenge her US Open exit. She did it by playing disciplined, patient, smart tennis, and she did the same against Garcia despite falling short.
"At least I fixed my serve this season and even with not a great start of the season, I made it to the Finals and I finished the year in the Top 5," Sabalenka said. "At least going into the next season I don't have this stupid thing in my mind about my serve. I know I can serve, I know I can hit double faults, I can hit aces and it's not a big problem because I have a lot of weapons to play with. That's the great thing about this season."
Sabalenka's evolution has meant letting go of her petulant instincts and embracing humility, something she says she struggled to learn.
"I’m still young, but before, I felt like a teenager who couldn’t lose, who would get really upset at losses and couldn’t accept that someone could beat me," Sabalenka said. "I used to think that I’m the best and no one can beat me. That was probably the right thinking because I wasn’t losing that many finals. I probably have to go back to that teenager mindset a little," she said, jokingly.
"But no, you never know what’s going to happen in the next match. I just have to stay a good person to the other player. Today, she won, she beat you, but next time probably you will beat her. You just have to respect people. I think it’s good."
Then, Sabalenka paused and her mischievous grin took over.
"Maybe the result isn’t good enough. Maybe I need to be the stupid teenager to win a few more titles. We’ll see."
We'll see indeed, in 2023.