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Aryna Sabalenka's first serve: No. 2 seed conquers yips to survive Sanders, begin Australian Open campaign
Sabalenka avoided a near-disaster to overcome the home favorite on Rod Laver Arena and advance into the second round.
Published Jan 18, 2022
WATCH: Sabalenka was back to her best by the end of a three-set tussle with Storm Sanders on Tuesday.
There were two storms surging on Rod Laver Arena tonight. One was from eponymous Aussie Storm Sanders, a singles wildcard but fast-improving doubles star looking to prove potent in both disciplines.
The second brewed in the mind of Aryna Sabalenka—the clear favorite and No. 2 seed—for all to see. Disastrous serving yips derailed her preparation and threatened to send her tumbling out of the Australian Open in the first round before the resilient Belarusian powered on in time to survive Sanders, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.
Sabalenka has long marveled with her ability to reign an extreme power within the narrow bounds of the tennis court. That fragile truce came untethered in her initial efforts against Kaja Juvan and Rebecca Peterson. It was no longer a question of whether her booming serve make the box so much as whether she could keep the ball in the stadium itself. In between pitiful underarm attempts, she racked up 21 double faults against Peterson in Adelaide, causing umpire Julie Kjendlie to gently question whether injury was to blame.
“It’s a technical problem,” a dejected Sabalenka replied—ironic given her promise to improve the shot after a round-robin exit at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara.
“We worked a lot, but it’s not about my serve,” she clarified in press Tuesday night. “If you see me serving in the practice court, it’s a perfect, amazing serve.
“I think it’s all about up here,” she says, gesturing to her head. “I was thinking a lot about my serve and was trying to control everything, but this isn’t how it works. I have muscle memory and so I just have to trust myself.”
After the Peterson defeat, she received a text from friend and former pro Mark Phillippoussis offering to help smooth out her delivery. The two first met at Wimbledon when a young Sabalenka saw the two-time major finalist on the practice court and sought him out for serving advice.
“He told me he felt so bad watching me hit all those double faults! He was commentating but after his last match, we went out on court at 8 or 9PM, and he gave me some tips on what to focus on. I’m so thankful for that, but still, I was really worried about my serve and what would happen in the match.”
Her worst fears were realized in the early goings against Sanders. The Queenslander happily capitalized on more of the same from her out-of-sorts opponent to race ahead 4-1 in the opening set. Oddly at ease despite by the deficit, Sabalenka finally showed up, serving credibly—if 20 miles per hour more slowly—enough to level proceedings at five games apiece.
Back under pressure, the double faults returned. Two more poor serve games and Sabalenka was down a set and a break, relegated to a spectator while Sanders thrilled her home fans with some audacious lefty spin. A maiden Top 10 win appeared in sight.
Where she allowed the US Open crowd to distract her against Leylah Fernandez in September, she engaged the Aussies as a means of diverting from her own doubts. Steadying through a lengthy seventh game, she ultimately shook a few double faults from Sanders and began looking more like herself as she forced a decider.
Sabalenka grew in confidence with each game, evidenced by an increased serve speed that was back towards the upper 100s by match’s end. Though she struck another 12 doubles through the two-hour tussle, half came in the first set and the rest were balanced out by seven aces and 29 winners.
The 23-year-old wrestled with the Grand Slam spotlight for much of her career before making a quantum leap with back-to-back semifinals last summer. Where rival Ashleigh Barty carries considerable momentum from her title run two weeks ago, Sabalenka’s pre-Slam defeats rendered expectation nonexistent. For all her on-court woes, she has tried to appear unbothered on Instagram, ostensibly taking her struggles in stride.
Now that the clouds have parted, might she make a storm of another kind in Melbourne? The forecast is cautiously optimistic.