Australia was not a happy hunting ground for Aryna Sabalenka 12 months ago.
The start of 2022 saw her exit Adelaide International’s pre-major event at the hands of a qualifier, her serve so poor she was left in tears and rolled them under her arms as her tally of double fault reached 21.
The Australian Open didn’t fare much better, with the second seed then sent to the fourth round at the start of a year that saw her make 428 double faults – 151 more than any other player on the tour. WTA.
But 2023 marks a new beginning. And the Belarusian Sabalenka throws it like a Grand Slam champion.
Yes, the double faults are still there, starting the Australian Open final against Elena Rybakina with one on her very first serve, later wasting her first championship point with another. But they are less and less numerous, its hard off-season construction sites arriving at the right time.
“Well, that was a good start for me,” joked Sabalenka, 24, after her first major singles win. “I was like, well, it’s going to be fun after the double fault.”
It was fun, at least for the viewer, as an exciting finale unfolded.
After that double fault, things didn’t improve much for Sabalenka as Wimbledon champion Rybakina took the early lead, with Sabalenka conceding a set for the first time this season.
But she hadn’t lost her previous six Slam matches after losing the first set and that was a stat she wasn’t ready to give up. And so the fightback began.
In the battle of the heavy hitters, Sabalenka forced a decider on Rod Laver Arena, earning the all-important front break – with nerves in full swing – finally picking up the biggest victory of his career on his fourth championship point.
“I think it’s even nicer after all those tough games,” she said. “I really feel like I needed those tough defeats to understand myself a bit better. It was like preparation for me.
“I’m actually happy to have lost those games, so now I can be a different and fair player. [a] different Aryna, you know?”
A different Aryna, considerably calmer, indeed, thanks to the work of a psychologist and a biomechanical expert to correct her temperamental serve.
Tonight she will celebrate with the team that got her to this point. It’s not the happiest day of her life – which is reserved for the day she met her boyfriend – but the celebrations will be as if it were.
Pizza, sweets and a “small glass of champagne” are on order, the latter having already begun as she enjoyed a drink during her press conference.
“I’m going to eat whatever I haven’t been able to eat all week,” she said. “My mother and my grandmother are fighting for this trophy at the moment. I will give it to the house where I keep all these trophies.”
What now for Wimbledon?
A Belarusian winning the first Grand Slam of the season will inevitably pose a big question mark for the third. Will Sabalenka be allowed to compete at Wimbledon?
Last year the answer was no, with major turf banning Russians and Belarusians from playing after Russia invaded Ukraine, but organizers have yet to make a decision on the 2023 tournament.
Sabalenka continues to compete under a neutral flag and there will be no mention of her home nation engraved next to her name on the trophy, but she brushed off questions on the subject with a simple answer: “I think everyone everyone still knows that I am a Belarusian player.”
She has previously explained how upset she was after being banned from Wimbledon, unable to bear watching TV and instead throwing herself into gym work.
That meant she probably didn’t watch Rybakina, her Moscow-born opponent who represents Kazakhstan, win her maiden Grand Slam title on center court last July.
Rybakina will reach the world top 10 for the first time when the rankings are updated on Monday, having failed to benefit from the improved ranking points that a Grand Slam title normally brings after Wimbledon is stripped.
The 23-year-old Rybakina has now lost all four meetings with Sabalenka, all decided in straight sets – but she won’t dwell on a missed opportunity, knowing that with a higher ranking, more will come soon.
“I would say not many girls can really put me under that kind of pressure,” she said of her opponent.
“I just knew I had to serve well. It’s also the pressure at the end, as soon as I have an opportunity, I take it.
“Today I had opportunities and I didn’t take them. The game didn’t go my way.”