Aryna Sabalenka’s 2023 season peaked in early May when she defeated World No.1 Iga Swiatek in the Madrid final. She had already won the Australian Open for her first Grand Slam singles title and seemed destined to capture that top ranking.

It happened after the US Open, but there was an asterisk: Swiatek lost early and Sabalenka fell to teenager Coco Gauff in the final. Eight weeks later, Swiatek was the year-end No.1 and Sabalenka was left to mourn what might have been -- and wonder what more she could do.

Opening her initial press conference this year in Melbourne, the moderator asked her what it felt like to return as the defending champion.

“No big difference, to be honest,” Sabalenka said. “It’s the same. You still need to work hard.”

After throttling Zheng Qinwen 6-3, 6-2 in Saturday’s final, it’s clear Sabalenka did not spend her offseason sulking at home in Miami.

“Discipline,” said her strength coach, Jason Stacy, “is doing the things you know you need to do regardless of how you’re feeling.”

Integrity, the saying goes, is doing the right thing -- even when no one is looking. Especially when no one is looking.

In professional tennis, that would be November and December. Those training blocks on courts far beyond the public eye are an opportunity to tweak things and subject yourself to the kind of sustained physical punishment that lays a foundation for the long season ahead. 

How hard did you work? It’s all revealed in the first major fortnight Down Under.

Victoria Azarenka crushed her preseason training blocks and won two major titles in Melbourne, back-to-back in 2012 and 2013. And now, after some grueling offseason work in Dubai, Sabalenka has matched that achievement.

“We always looking for things to improve in my game,” Sabalenka said afterward. “It’s all about the process. Make sure that you’re always there, you always show up, and you always work hard.

“Compared to last year, it’s completely different me.”

It’s difficult to overstate her dominance. She won all 14 sets -- only Gauff managed to get more than three games in a frame. Sabalenka is only the fifth woman this century to produce a spotless card, joining Lindsay Davenport (2000), Maria Sharapova (2008), Serena Williams (2017) and Ashleigh Barty (2022), a distinguished group of multiple major winners.

Against Zheng, Sabalenka won 32 of 38 of first-serve points (84 percent) and 15 of 24 (62 percent) when Zheng was forced to hit a second serve. Six of those points were double faults, a testament to the relentless pressure Sabalenka exerted.

In her speech during the trophy presentation, Sabalenka acknowledged public speaking was not her superpower. But after that near-flawless 76-minute performance, it’s obvious that this new sense of command, a raw-but-controlled aggression, is.

Sabalenka has always been a talented player but sometimes something else short-circuited her performance in big moments. No more.

“I think she’s much better hiding her emotions,” her coach Anton Dubrov said. “She understands like a few [bad] shots or few points, `OK, I have to come back to my routine, to my rhythm.’ So she’s more aware when she has to start to take control of herself more.”

And there’s an emerging, forward-thinking dimension to her game, too.

“I think in New York I played a little bit passive tennis,” Sabalenka said of the loss to Gauff. “I didn’t put so much pressure [on] her. The whole preseason I was working on those approach shots, on coming to the net and finish the point.”

Dubrov echoed: “Just push yourself to go more in front. Because if you cannot hit winners from the baseline, as usual, you need to find some other ways.”

In the semifinals, Sabalenka won 11 of 20 points at net -- one more than Gauff. And while she blew some makeable volleys, she kept coming. With her serve sizzling against Zheng, she came to net only eight times. But, with Zheng serving down 3-1 in the second set, Sabalenka scored a critical second break with a gorgeous drop volley that was so subtle it might have evaporated.

At 25, Sabalenka is now the player so many thought she was. No one has been better in the recent majors; she’s reached six consecutive semifinals and three finals, winning two of them.

Sabalenka seems better equipped to chase down Swiatek than she was a year ago. 

“If I’m going to keep working like I’m working right now,” she said, “and if we’re going to keep building what we are building right now, I’m definitely able to do the same on the clay and on the grass.

“It takes me so much time to become who I am right now on court, to have this control of myself, and to understand myself better. Yeah, it’s been a long journey.”