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By reminding herself she was built for big occasions, Aryna Sabalenka soars to Australian Open glory
In a blazing final, Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina matched each other ace for ace and winner for winner, until the No. 5 seed found another gear, and her first Grand Slam title.
Published Jan 28, 2023
“Nobody tells you it’s going to be easy,” Aryna Sabalenka kept saying to herself on Saturday night in Rod Laver Arena. “You just have to work for it, work for it till the last point.”
Sabalenka was playing her first Grand Slam final, but she already knew exactly how hard it is to win one of these tournaments. Three times she had reached the semifinals at a major, three times she had victory in her grasp, and three times she had stumbled at the finish line and lost 6-4 in the third set.
The 24-year-old had been touted as a future champion since she was a teenager. Alongside Naomi Osaka, who is one year older, the 6-foot, long-limbed, heavy-hitting Sabalenka seemed destined to power her way to multiple major titles. But while Osaka collected four of them, Sabalenka couldn’t master the Slam-winning mindset. She was up, she was down, she hit too big, she got the yips, she double faulted over and over again. She let her wide variety of facial expressions, rather than her racquet, do the talking. She couldn’t, as Rafael Nadal would say, “play with calm.”
“I was, like, overdoing things,” Sabalenka says of those three semifinal defeats. “I was rushing a lot. I was nervous a lot. Screaming, doing all this stuff.”
This time Sabalenka kept her cool in a semifinal win over Magda Linette, but the old issues returned right away in the final against Elena Rybakina. Up 40-0 in an early service game, Sabalenka double-faulted it away, then double-faulted again at 4-4, break point. She hit her forehand flat-footed, a sign of nerves. She directed the ball straight into Rybakina’s strength, her backhand. When she went down double break point in the first game of the second set, to a player who already has a Slam title in her pocket, it looked like Sabalenka would have to be satisfied taking one step forward, and one step back, in Melbourne.
Except that wasn’t what the tennis gods had in mind. Sabalenka’s comeback began, as so many do, with a couple pieces of good fortune. First she saved a break point with a forehand that clipped the net cord. Then she saved one with a forehand that caught a millimeter of the baseline. With that moment of danger averted, Sabalenka settled down. She started making first serves. She started hitting through her forehand. At 2-1, she broke Rybakina with a series of deep returns, and held out from there.
“I was just nervous in the first set,” Sabalenka said. “I just tell myself that I just have to keep going, like keep trying, keep fighting, and I will have my opportunity to come back in this match.”
Sabalenka and Rybakina brought matching power games to this final. In the third set they matched each other’s quality of play, too. Ace was met by ace, winner was met by winner, clutch shot was met by clutch shot, as they chased each other down the homestretch. In the end, Sabalenka had one more gear than Rybakina. With Rybakina serving at 3-3, Sabalenka unleashed a forehand barrage, and a winning smash, that earned her the decisive break.
All that was left for Sabalenka was the hardest part: Serving out her first Slam win. The nerves returned, of course—she double faulted on her first match point, and made ground-stroke errors on two others. But as she told herself all night, nobody said it was going to be easy. Sabalenka saved a break point with a big serve, and watched as Rybakina sent her last forehand over the baseline.
“Every time I had a tough moment on court,” Sabalenka said, “I was just reminding myself that I’m good enough to handle all this.”
The quality of the match was reflected in the statistics. Sabalenka finished with 17 aces and twice as many winners as errors (51 to 25), and there were just five breaks over three sets. This was power tennis, but it wasn’t hit-and-miss power tennis.
It was also a match that was about success rather than failure. When this tournament began, one player, Iga Swiatek, was in a stratosphere of her own. Now Sabalenka, after failing to make the final leap upward for three years, has joined her there. And she knows it.
“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for [my] 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,’” she said
“I just changed how I feel. I start [to] respect myself more. I start to understand that actually I’m here because I work so hard and I’m actually [a] good player.”