MELBOURNE, Australia — When Aryna Sabalenka burst on to the Hologic WTA Tour, her brand of heavy power and fiery competitive instincts were on full display. She roared with every winner. She brandished a fierce tiger tattoo on her right forearm. She seemed unafraid of anything and anyone and she had the striking talent to back it up.
But it took years of work with her team and a season of humility to truly teach the 24-year-old what it actually means to compete. Her serving woes in the first six months of the 2022 season nearly forced her coach Anton Dubrov to walk away, as he felt helpless to help her. It made her own self-doubts impossible to ignore. It hammered home the truth that Sabalenka was forced to confront: raw talent alone does not make a champion.
How Sabalenka found her inner calm and a new level of success
And so, as the world watched week after week and match after match, Sabalenka put her head down and confronted her insecurities. After refusing to even discuss and acknowledge her serving woes, she brought on a biomechanics specialist last summer and changed her motion. She took bad losses and vowed to learn from them. And she learned that being a formidable competitor wasn’t about how loud you roared but how hard you worked.
In overly simplistic terms, Sabalenka grew up. She took responsibility for her problems and did the work to fix them. And she redirected her competitive fire internally.
The result: an undefeated start to the 2023 season and her first Grand Slam title. On Saturday, Sabalenka became the newest member of the Grand Slam club after defeating reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to win the Australian Open. In a match resoundingly regarded as the best major women’s final in years, Sabalenka kept her cool and her eyes trained ahead to edge Rybakina for the title.
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Sabalenka sat down with WTA Insider after her whirlwind media rounds to reflect on her title run and what it means for her going forward.
WTA Insider: Has it sunk in? What was going through your mind when you finally broke through to win your first major title?
Sabalenka: “It sounds like a dream. Like I’m still dreaming and I will wake up disappointed because it was all a dream.
“I’m super happy with this win because of the level of tennis. She played unbelievable tennis and I really fought so hard for this trophy. To get this win the way I got it, it’s amazing.
“I didn’t expect myself to cry. There were so many thoughts in my mind at that moment. I was super proud of myself, super happy for my team, it was just the best moment of my life so far.”
WTA Insider: You’re a player we always said had the talent and ability to win Slams. But did you have to go through what you went through last year to win it the way you did?
Sabalenka: “I’ve been through a lot of tough moments in the last year. They always say that everyone happens for a reason and I couldn’t understand what was the reason. What did I do wrong to deserve it? Right now sitting here, I have this understanding. Now I got it.
“I think I wouldn’t win a Grand Slam without that situation. I would be emotional every time, I would be screaming, crying on the court, instead of playing tennis. Just because of that I became a different player. I became calmer on the court and I started to respect myself a little bit more. I have belief more in myself because of the last year. I think that really helped me.
“Because of that belief, I am a Grand Slam champion, which sounds really crazy. Wow.”
WTA Insider: You played that second set as though you didn’t lose that first set. What solutions were you able to find to turn it around?
Sabalenka: “After that first set, I think before I would be going crazy on myself and, not give up, but give that second set easily to her.
“Today, I just kept fighting, kept believing. I said to myself I have to move a little bit better, I have to play a little bit deeper, and I have to take the ball a little bit earlier to take time away from her, make her move, make her work for it. That’s it.
“The main thing is I kept fighting. I kept telling myself she’s not going to give it easy to you. This is a Grand Slam final. She wants to win it. And I want to win it. You have to work for it. Because of that I kept fighting, kept trying.”
WTA Insider: Your trainer has a background in Jiujitsu and fighting. Working with him, did it give you a different understanding of what it means to “fight”?
Sabalenka: “Not only with Jason but working with team, they changed me a lot. Jason, because he’s a fighter, after I started working with him I understood what fighting is.
“Fighting is about working when it’s tough moments, to work through, not get emotional, control yourself, and just think about what you have to do.
“Before, I used to think if I was screaming ‘come on’ and keep hit the ball hard, that this to fight. Now I have an understanding that fighting is to be able in the tough moments to keep working, keep thinking about what you have to do, instead of all the emotions.”
WTA Insider: It’s only been a few hours since you’ve become a Grand Slam champion …
Sabalenka: “I still need a few days to realize what has happened.”
WTA Insider: When this all sinks in, what does this change for you?
Sabalenka: “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. This is huge motivation, you know?”
WTA Insider: What is the motivation?
Sabalenka: “The motivation to every time prove that I can do it, again and again. … Hopefully again, again, and again, and again.”
- How Aryna Sabalenka learned a new way to fight
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