A year ago it was a different picture for Aryna Sabalenka. It was a scene of struggle, perseverance, and endurance without a reward at the end of the process. 428 double faults in 2022 alone; it was a grueling watch all too often. Early on she lost twice in Adelaide (that’s just how tennis works nowadays), exited early in Melbourne, and went winless at the Sunshine Double. For a player who was tipped by many to take the #1 reign after Ashleigh Barty’s retirement, it was extremely underwhelming. With an early Roland Garros exit combined with a Wimbledon absence, which she had no control over, 2022 was becoming a nightmare.
Yet, there were clear signs of improvement come the tail end of the season. Her serve was starting to… function, and she even pushed Iga Swiatek to a three-setter at Flushing Meadows. Backing up this she defeated the Pole at the season-ending WTA Finals and finished runner-up. Heading into 2023 things were looking promising. Often though translating last season’s form into a new season is challenging. A clean slate can come at the wrong time for some.
Aryna Sabalenka: 2023 Australian Open Champion
There was no hangover whatsoever, though, as last fortnight showed. She is yet to lose this year and on this form, you do wonder who will stop her. Everything about her game is mesmerizing. Her serve, which was her greatest weakness, has now become a weapon. Her powerful groundstrokes mean that she can out-hit anyone. Yet, we knew all this beforehand. It was her mental game that went up a gear.
Her previous issues were in her head. Not being able to serve, for example, wasn’t a skill problem. It was a lack of confidence. This Grand Slam though, there was something different in the air around her. Any hiccups were overcome. A double fault was followed by an ace. An unforced error was followed by a winner. A set lost in the final was followed up by two won. Maturity oozed in her game and Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina was no match.
Sabalenka feels relief and joy to finally be a Grand Slam champion. She spoke about her previous issues with imposter syndrome to WTA Tennis and why leaping over that hurdle will help her reach new levels in 2023,
“First of all, it’s a little relief that I have a Grand Slam. Second, it’s like a drug. I really want it again. It really motivates me a lot. I want even more and I want to become a better player. I know that there is still a lot of things to work on to be better on court. I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for a signature, I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for a 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. I started to respect myself more. I started to understand that actually I’m here because I work so hard and I’m actually a good player. 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.”
It’s easy to jump on the hype train after seeing someone win their first Grand Slam. Often, backing it up is more than half the task. With this momentum though there is no reason for that to be an issue. Looking forward to the Sunshine double, I would have her as a favourite, over Iga Swiatek. Whatever your opinion is of her, you cannot deny it was a special fortnight for tennis and an incredible show of resilience and character.
Main Photo from Getty.