Aryna Sabalenka was, understandably, a little revved up as she served for her first major title. She failed to put away any of her first three championship points in the final game. On the fourth, she took her time and took a breath. When Elena Rybakina finally overhit a forehand, Sabalenka fell to the court in tears.
It was a moment that finally carried her to a new place. Sabalenka delivered in her first Grand Slam final. In a thrilling 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Rybakina on Saturday, she won the Australian Open, her first major singles title.
The secret of her success can be found in that deep breath, for in the span of an offseason, Sabalenka has achieved a remarkable makeover.
It manifested itself, marvelously, in the final. Sabalenka finished with an astounding 51 winners -- against only 28 unforced errors. The condition of her psyche can always be seen in the bottom-line category of double faults. In the first set against Rybakina, she hit five of them and it cost her. In the final two sets, however, there were only two.
In the past, when the heat was on in the majors, Sabalenka often found herself out of her comfort zone. In her first major semifinal, in 2021 versus Karolina Pliskova, Sabalenka had more winners and aces. And yet, Pliskova overcame a one-set deficit.
Later at the US Open, Sabalenka lost another three-set match, to 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez. Ranked No.2 at the time, Sabalenka hit a sensational 46 winners -- but 52 unforced errors cost her against the No.73-ranked player.
A year later, Sabalenka faced No.1 Iga Swiatek in another US Open semifinal. Sabalenka won the first set and was up a break in the third, but Swiatek won the last four games on her way to the title.
What did she learn from losing that third major semifinal, to World No.1 Iga Swiatek at last year’s US Open?
“T be a little bit calmer on court and I don’t have to rush things,” Sabalenka said. “I just have to play my game, be calm, and believe in myself, that I can actually get it.
“I think during these two weeks I really was super calm on court, and I really believed in myself a lot, that my game will give me a lot of opportunities in each game to win this title.”
Over the years, Sabalenka has worked with sports psychologists to temper her notorious temper. No more.
“I realized that nobody than me will help, you know?” she told reporters. “On the preseason, I spoke to my psychologist saying, ‘Listen, 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 just have to take this responsibility and I just have to deal with that. Yeah, I’m not working with psychologist any more. I’m my psychologist.”
#AusOpen Final Stats:— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 28, 2023
Sabalenka: 17 aces, 7 DFs, 65% 1st serves, 71% 1st serves won, 47% 2nd serves won, 5/7 BP saved, 51 winners, 28UFE.
Rybakina: 9 aces, 1 DF, 59% 1st serves, 71% 1st serves won, 44% 2nd serves won, 2 of 7 BPs won, 31 winners, 25UFE.
And while defeating Magda Linette in the semifinal two days earlier was one of the biggest wins of her career, it can be argued that Sabalenka never felt anything approaching oppressive heat in her six previous matches.
In the bottom half of the draw, Marketa Vondousova, Linette, Varvara Gracheva and Katie Volynets did the heavy lifting, upsetting No.2 Ons Jabeur, No.4 Caroline Garcia, No.8 Daria Kasatkina and No.9 Veronika Kudermetova, respectively. The only seeded players Sabalenka beat were No.12 Belinda Bencic and No.26 Elise Mertens.
Rybakina, meanwhile, took down (in order) last year’s finalist here, Danielle Collins, No.1 Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko -- who upset No.7 Coco Gauff -- and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.
Sabalenka says she’s playing a “boring” brand of tennis. The result: She’s won all 11 matches she’s played this year and 22 of 23 sets. And don’t forget that Rybakina was going for her second major title in three tries.
“I wish I would be like that few years ago,” Sabalenka said, smiling. “Finally I understand what everyone was looking for and asking for. I need to be a little bit boring on court. I was trying to less screaming after some bad points or some errors. I was just, like, trying to hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point.”
At the WTA Finals in Fort Worth back in November, Sabalenka hit only two double faults -- but they cost her a pivotal tiebreak and, ultimately, a loss to Garcia. It’s the only tiebreak she’s lost among her past nine.
The final, as expected, came down to a few critical moments. Sabalenka met them with the calm we’ve seen so far this season.
A snapshot from the semifinal’s second set suggested that might happen Saturday.
Leading 5-1, Sabalenka had held two match points on Linette’s serve but squandered them with a pair of unforced errors, a backhand into the net and a screaming forehand that flew long. It was a microcosm of her recent career -- going for too much when it mattered most.
Yet, while serving at 5-2, 30-all, Sabalenka backed off ever so slightly. She hit a 116 mph serve outside -- forceful but measured. On her fourth match point, there was a gleam in her eye when Linette sent back a waist-high ball. Sabalenka set her feet, hesitated for a split second and spun the ball a little more than usual, giving it more than enough air to clear the net. It was a walk-off forehand crosscourt winner, but it also marked the personal evolution in progress this fortnight.
There was no scream, no ecstatic fist pump. Sabalenka simply turned to her box and smiled.
This eerie calm played out in the final, as well. After dropping the first set, Sabalenka found some lethal groundstrokes, but never lost her composure. Three times she held match point, and three times her serve failed her. Rybakina had four deuce opportunities to level the match, but Sabalenka did not give in.
“I always had this weird feeling,” Sabalenka said after defeating Rybakina, “that when people would come to me and ask for 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.’
“I just changed how I feel. Like, I start respect myself more. I start to understand that actually I’m here because I work so hard. 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.”