NEW YORK -- When Aryna Sabalenka opened her 2023 campaign in January, the No.1 ranking was not on her mind. After a season in which she struggled for months to serve a ball into the box, she was just hoping for a respectable start to the season.
Then she won the Australian Open and that's when the chase began.
Nine months on, Sabalenka is the 29th World No.1 in tour history, taking the top spot from Iga Swiatek, who had held the position for 75 consecutive weeks.
Sabalenka's journey has been one fraught with insecurities and a passion that can be her biggest weapon and her Achilles heel. Her evolution into a dominating force did not happen overnight or by wishful thinking. Sabalenka's story is one of resilience, a dogged work ethic and an insatiable desire to always have the match on her racquet.
More on the change at No.1:
- After a long wait, Sabalenka ready to take over No.1
- 'I want a battle for this': Sabalenka ready for No.1 challenge
- For Team Sabalenka, work doesn't stop at No.1
- Swiatek reflects on her 75-week run
Sabalenka spoke to WTA Insider in New York after clinching the No.1 ranking to reflect on her tough road to a historic career achievement.
WTA Insider: Let's go back to the start of the season. How far away did the World No.1 ranking seem for you?
Sabalenka: After winning the Australia Open, I was thinking probably I have a chance to put Iga under pressure, show her that it's not going to be easy for her to stay on top of the game. I was just practicing a lot, kept working hard, kept improving myself, and I was hoping that one day I'd become World No.1.
WTA Insider: Was there ever a moment you let it get into your head?
Sabalenka: I think at the French Open. It went into my head and I let this thing distract me. It was a little bit painful, to be honest. I was really pissed after the match because, for me, it was kind of like going back to the old habits and not focusing on myself. I was focusing on the rest of the things, which are, honestly, not really important. So I had some chances there.
I had some chances at Wimbledon. But Wimbledon, I didn't really think about that. I also went back to the old habits where where I'm getting upset after losing my serve. I think that was the key and the answer to why I lost that match against Ons. Definitely, she played really unbelievable tennis, but to be honest, I kind of gave her this opportunity.
WTA Insider: You're now going from being the hunter to being the hunted. Have you thought about what that will be like?
Sabalenka: Now I've become the one who is trying to run away as far as I can so nobody really can get me. But let's say, I'm chasing my goals. That's it.
WTA Insider: To become No.1, it's not about a few hot weeks. It's about consistency. This season you made the semifinals of all four Slams and are into the last eight nearly every week. How hard is it to be consistent?
Sabalenka: To be honest, it's not like it was really hard.
When you understand yourself better, when you know yourself better, when you know how to control your emotions, it's not that hard. If you're working hard, if you're if you're doing everything you can to be ready for all these battles, it's not that hard. You're just focusing on yourself.
If you work hard, you know that you have something to bring on the court and you have something to show. You have this belief that, yeah, I can win all these matches. I just have to focus on myself and play my tennis and do things that we've been working on.
WTA Insider: You've spoken frequently over the years about learning to control your emotions. Is the person you are now completely foreign to the one who first broke out on tour?
Sabalenka: It's been really difficult to improve this part of my game. I'm a really emotional person on court, but off court, it's really tough to make me upset. You have to do something really terrible to me. The goal was to bring this Aryna on court.
I worked really hard. I work with psychologists to get to know myself better. It's been a lot of work, physically and mentally. I was trying to improve all aspects of my game.
The thing that helped me improve that part of my game is when I was dealing with all those double faults. I had to learn how to play when I had literally nothing. Just play with my character, just fight for it.
When I fixed my serve, I realized that I actually can return well, I can serve well now, I can move well. Mentally, I'm really strong. Nothing can really destroy me.
WTA Insider: Your power game is what gets people's attention, but over the past four seasons you've been able to broaden your skills. You're among the few players to be ranked No.1 in both singles and doubles in her career. When did you realize you needed to be more than just a power player?
Sabalenka: I always knew that, but I guess I didn't have people who could really help me with that. Now I have, I think, the best team for me. They're always thinking how to improve my game. What do we have to do physically to be ready for all these long rallies on court, to know how to play in defense.
It's been really hard to improve all those aspects of my game. It takes some time. Sometimes you have to just work on some things and don't expect them to work well in the first match. Sometimes it takes weeks or months. Sometimes it takes a year.
I'm still hungry to learn more, to improve more and to make sure that everything depends on me on court.