Aryna Sabalenka keeps emotions in check during dominant Australian Open success

By Sports Desk January 27, 2024

Aryna Sabalenka’s ruthless defence of her Australian Open title was powered by a sense of fun and new-found inner calm.

The world number two lifted her first grand slam trophy at Melbourne Park 12 months ago and has been untouchable this fortnight.

She did not drop a set in seven matches and defeated first-time grand slam finalist Zheng Qinwen 6-3 6-2 to become the first player since compatriot Victoria Azarenka 11 years ago to claim back-to-back titles.

“I don’t know how to describe my emotions,” said Sabalenka. “But definitely I’m super, super happy and proud of everything I was able to achieve so far. I’m just happy with the level I played today.”

Zheng, who did not face a top-50 player through the first six rounds, had hoped to emulate the watching Li Na and claim the title for China a decade on.

But the 21-year-old, the 12th first-time slam finalist in the women’s game in the last three years, was up against it from the start and Sabalenka wrapped up victory in only 76 minutes despite a brief disruption from pro-Palestine protesters.

Sabalenka has ridden emotional highs and lows throughout her career, overcoming the yips on her serve two years ago and several bruising semi-final losses before she reached her first final 12 months ago.

She showed tremendous consistency at the slams last year, reaching at least the last four in each one, but there were still crushing defeats in big matches, most painfully in the US Open final against Coco Gauff, after which Sabalenka was seen backstage smashing her rackets.

But in Melbourne this year the 25-year-old has been flawless, with her only testing match coming in the semi-finals against Gauff and resulting in a cathartic victory.

“I think it’s all come with experience,” she said. “There is not going to be big wins without really tough losses. Of course I was very down after those matches. I was crying, I was smashing the racket, as we see. I was really crazy.

“But then, after a day or two, we sit down with the team, thinking, ‘OK, what do we have to do to fix it and to make sure this will never happen again’.”

Sabalenka’s ferocity on court is at odds with her fun-loving persona off it, and her team can often be seen joking around behind the scenes, while a tradition this year was for the Belarusian to write her signature on her fitness trainer Jason Stacy’s bald head.

Helping her find an emotional equilibrium during matches has been a lengthy process, with Stacy saying: “That’s been the plan for years. First making her more aware of what’s happening.

“It’s been a big part. She’s just hiding it really well, and it’s not guaranteed it’s going to be that way every week. But that’s what makes her so dangerous and so powerful as well that part of her. It’s beautiful.”

Sabalenka said with a smile: “It’s actually good that I’m two different people on and off the court, because if I would be the same person that I am on the court off the court, I think I wouldn’t have my team around me and I think I would be alone.

“It takes me so much time to become who I am right now on court, to have this control of myself, and to understand myself better.”

Sabalenka seized control of the match from the start, opening up a 3-0 lead before Zheng gained a foothold courtesy of some impressive serving.

Three double faults in one game was a disastrous start to the second set, though, and even four missed match points could not derail Sabalenka.

Zheng, who will break into the top 10 for the first time on Monday, was disappointed with her performance, saying: “To play against her I think it’s so important to hold your own service game. But I couldn’t do that, especially at the beginning.

“I didn’t perform my best. That’s really a pity for me because I really wanted to show better than that.”

Sabalenka used her acceptance speech to thank her family, and a second slam title fulfilled the dream she shared with her late father Sergey, who died in 2019.

“It was really important,” she said. “Of course he’s my biggest motivation. He’s been everything for me.

“But right now I have my mom, my sister, who is here with me, and I feel like I have to think about them. But I just feel that he’s always with me. I’m very thankful for everything he did for me, and I think if not him I wouldn’t be here.

“Now, having two grand slam titles, it definitely gives me more confidence and belief in myself. I just have this, knowing that all my life it wasn’t a waste of time and I was doing the right thing. I’m where I’m meant to be.”

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