On the sidelines of the tennis courts at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai, in 2017, Aryna Sabalenka’s then coach Khalil Ibragimov pointed to his white mop of hair.
“My hair has turned white because of her,” he joked, referring to Sabalenka, then a 19-year-old ranked 96 in the world, and her compulsive hard-hitting. Her mantra was simple – see ball, hit ball, and hit very, very hard. Often it would garner awe from the crowd watching from the makeshift stand at the erstwhile WTA 125K series event that she went on to win as her first ever tour title. But Ibragimov was concerned at the number of times the ball was over-hit and flew long of the baseline.
“She’s got lots of power and aggression, but now she needs to learn how to control it,” he had said.
It’s been over five years since she picked up her first tour title in Mumbai. Along the way she’s learnt how to harness that aggression, hit the ball meaningfully, over the net and inside the lines. It’s seen her rise to world No 2.
And on Saturday, it saw the current world No 5 win her first ever Grand Slam title when she came from behind to beat Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the women’s singles final of the Australian Open.
Overcome, Sabalenka couldn’t quite describe the emotions.
“(I’m) just super happy. Super happy. Proud. I don’t know how to explain. Just the best – (it’s) the best day of my life right now,” said the 24-year-old, beaming, in the post-match press conference, with a glass of celebratory champagne nearby.
After three semifinal finishes, once at Wimbledon in 2021 and twice at the US Open in 2021 and 2022, Sabalenka reached the her first singles Major final in Melbourne on the back of 10 consecutive wins to start the season. And that streak to the final saw her not drop a single set, making her only the third woman this century to do so after Israeli player Anna Smashnova in 2002 and Agnieszka Radwanska in 2013.
But there was a lot of work she had to do behind the scenes to gain the remarkable results she’s achieved this year on court. Harnessing that power and aggression into something meaningful is one thing, fixing her wayward serves was of great importance. Last year, she hit 428 double faults, including 21 in the tune-up event before the 2022 Australian Open. She improved drastically this term and was more confident. And you could see it in the way she confidently opted to serve first in the final after winning the toss.
Remarkably, she dished out a double fault in the first point of the match. She smiled as a murmur floated around the Rod Laver Arena, and then she hammered a powerful ace down the T to get off the mark.
She has learnt to stay calm at the toughest moments. She’s worked with a sports psychologist in the past, but revealed in press conference earlier this week that now she’s working on the mental aspect all by herself.
“I realized that nobody (other) than me will help. On the preseason, I spoke to my psychologist saying, ‘Listen, I feel like I have to deal with that by myself, because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it’s not fixing my problem’,” said Sabalenka, who will again become the world No 2.
“I just have to take responsibility and I just have to deal with that. I’m my psychologist.”
She added that she tries not to scream as much when she loses a point, but stay in the moment instead and focus on the positives.
That’s what she did when she lost the first set in the final, her first this season. And she delved into the learnings she had from the previous three semifinal losses.
“I learned that I have to be a little calmer on court and I don’t have to rush things. I just have to play my game, be calm, and believe in myself, that I can actually get it. I think during these two weeks I really was super calm on court, and I really believed in myself a lot that my game will give me a lot of opportunities in each game to win this title,” she had said on Saturday.
She wouldn’t go away against Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and clawed her way back into the match by earning a break and winning the second set to take it into the decider.
At 3-3 in the third set, Sabalenka dialled up the aggression and power levels. There was more oomph in her groundstrokes. So much so that in the seventh game of the third set, on Rybakina’s serve, Sabalenka’s average forehand speed moved up to 87 mph from her regular 77 mph. In comparison, the men’s singles finalists Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas hit their forehands in the low 80s mph on average. But that’s not to say her backhand didn’t do much damage.
To secure the break, she hammered a backhand return on the Rybakina serve that nearly knocked the Kazakh off her feet in her attempt to keep the ball in play. Sabalenka finished the point with an overhead smash to gain the break.
Soon, on her own serve, she had her first Championship Point and then inexplicably, hit another double fault. On her fourth match point, she did something she didn’t do in the first three. She stepped away from the baseline, walked to her towel, wiped off and took a few breaths. Calm.
Then Rybakina sent a forehand long to give Sabalenka the title.
She lay on the floor and wept before embracing Rybakina. Later she walked towards her team and wept. Then there was all smiles and giggles when she lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
Later she talked about the self-confidence problem she faced and how she overcame it.
“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for 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. Like, I start respect myself more. I start to understand that actually I’m here because I work so hard and I’m actually good player. Every time I had a tough moment on court, I was just reminding myself that I’m good enough to handle all this just everything.”
Meet Aryna Sabalenka. A very good tennis player. And now a Grand Slam champion.