Aryna Sabalenka won the Australian Open with a decisive straight-sets victory over Zeng Qinwen, a fitting end to a fortnight that has her in the category of her sport at the moment, even if that's not what the world rankings say.
For the seventh time in as many matches, Sabalenka, a powerful 25-year-old Belarusian striker, outplayed her opponent for most of the match, attacking Cheng with her powerful serve, powerful forehand and backhand, when serving wide or into the Curling, it is almost impossible for her competitors to handle.
Sabalenka ended the first set with a powerful serve from the court and sealed her victory 6-3, 6-2 on the fifth point to decide the match with a powerful forehand in just the 76th minute.
Sabalenka said she was nervous and anxious before the match, but those feelings faded when she entered Rod Laver Arena, a completely different experience from her previous two Grand Slam finals.
“As soon as I got on the court, I felt like I was in control,” she said, sipping a glass of champagne.
This is Sabalenka's second consecutive Australian Open title, and the first time a woman has won back-to-back Grand Slam titles on hard courts since 2014. In a sport where consistency at the top has been rare, Sabalenka has been a beacon. Of consistency in the most important tournaments.
Starting with the US Open in 2022, she has reached at least the semifinals in each of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Since the start of last year, she has played in three Grand Slam finals, winning two of them, and was one point away from a fourth title.
Her consistency was especially notable because not long ago Sabalenka seemed as lost as the best tennis player. For several months during the early parts of 2022, she suffered from a most painful case of “YPS,” the nickname given to the psychological blocks that prevent athletes from performing the simplest actions.
In Sabalenka's case, she lost the ability to serve, and committed 21 double faults in one match, and 18 in another. During her Australian Open win in 2022, she celebrated by scoring “only” 10 goals. No one at the time could have predicted that the race would begin in less than a year, or how it would come to fruition.
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Sabalenka, the player everyone knew had the talent and physical fitness to become the best player in the world, told her coaches she didn't want to talk about her serve anymore. She fires her sports psychologist and decides it's up to her and only she to find out. And it certainly did.
She also began speaking publicly about the feelings that weighed heavily on her. Sabalenka's father and first tennis coach died suddenly in 2019 when he was just 43 and she was just 19. She had promised him that she would win a major championship when she was 25 years old. Her birthday was approaching. Time was running out, and in a sense, her grief was showing on the tennis court.
Sabalenka said she decided to start talking about her grief and the pain it caused in hopes of helping other people who lost a parent when they were young. It wasn't, but unleashing all those raw emotions seemed to free her and allow her to swing more freely than ever before.
After the US Open last year, she became the No. 1 player in the world. It was recovered by Polish Iga Swiatek at the end of the season. But Swiatek struggled through her first three matches at the first Grand Slam of the year, albeit against a tough group of opponents, and failed to reach the second week, while Sabalenka qualified, regardless of who was on the other side of the net.
In the semifinals, she avenged her loss in the US Open final to Coco Gauff. Next up was Zeng, the 21-year-old Chinese rising star who, over the past six months, has begun to fulfill the promise that many have come to expect of her in recent years – a player who could succeed Li Na as China's next female tennis player. hero. There were large groups of Chinese fans screaming for her and waving the Chinese flag from the first ball, doing their best to lift Zheng higher.
“I started out really slow and didn't play my tennis,” Cheng said. “She (Sabalenka) is a really aggressive player. She makes the other player uncomfortable.”
Cheng might one day be able to do that with the top players as well. But as well as facing a top-tier version of Sabalenka, Cheng struggled to deal with the nerves of her first Grand Slam final at the end of the tournament as Sabalenka was the only player the 12th-ranked Cheng faced in the top 50.
Sabalenka thought she was a completely different level of enemy, and she was.
She became the first woman to win the Australian Open title twice in a row since 2013. Sabalenka, like Victoria Azarenka, is from Belarus. It is a country whose players have had to navigate a tenuous situation in tennis since Russia – with the support of Belarus – invaded Ukraine in 2022. With the exception of tournaments in Great Britain, players from Russia and Belarus have been allowed to continue competing, but not under their flags or in team competitions and with their country's symbols. Banned in this sport.
Sabalenka, who lives mainly in Miami, has been repeatedly pressured to stand against the war, something that could be dangerous for anyone who still has family living in Russia or Belarus. She finally broke her silence on the issue in Paris last year at the French Open after several confrontations with a Ukrainian reporter, and subsequently missed two post-match press conferences.
“I do not support the war, which means I do not support Alexander Lukashenko at the moment,” she later said, referring to the president of Belarus.
Sabalenka has been a supporter of Lukashenko in the past, appearing with him in an infamous video at a New Year's Eve celebration before the invasion but long after Lukashenko crushed an opposition movement that accused him of rigging elections to retain power.
It has been the beginning of a turbulent summer for Sabalenka. She lost on match point in the semifinals at the French Open, then lost a one-set lead in the semifinals at Wimbledon, and then did it again in the finals of the US Open.
Sabalenka said on Saturday that the loss to Gauff prompted her to try to make improvements in her playing style.
Her coach Anton Dubroff said they spent the fall and offseason trying to develop additional weapons to give her a backup plan if her aggressive strategy of hitting balls across the court failed.
“We were trying to find a way where we could continue to play our game even if you weren't playing our best,” Dubroff said on Saturday. “We're trying to work more on the offensive side and directing volleys to get to the net more. Just push yourself more because if you can't make plays on the baseline, if you can't hit winners from the baseline, like usual, then you can find other ways.”
With the help of her performance coach, Jason Stacy, they also tried to keep the atmosphere around the team light and fun.
Over the past two weeks, Sabalenka has taken both techniques to new levels. In several games, and again on Saturday, she got forward up the court and finished with points even when she was playing well from the baseline, pulling away from Zheng, Gauff and everyone else she took down.
In the warm-up and training rooms in the lower levels of Melbourne Park, she wrestled with Stacey and Dubroff over possession of medicine balls, showing her resilience by taking a cup off Stacey's head as he stood upright with a jiu-jitsu roundhouse kick.
On match days, she inked his bald scalp with black marker and wrote Stacy's name on his ears in case he got lost. The more messes around, the better.
“It's very important,” Stacy said. “Just from an emotional standpoint, and from a neurological standpoint, based on neuroscience, how our brains work and spending those times, I mean, people learn better and pay more attention and be a little more active. They might have a little bit more fun. You have a little bit more fun.” Of creativity.”
Sabalenka said all the playing time helped her focus on the court.
“Keep it simple, keep it fun,” she said.
Nowadays, no one would accuse Sabalenka of playing all that creative tennis or not having moments where her mind can become exhausted. But lately, tennis for her has become more than just hitting the ball hard, and if that doesn't work, hitting it harder, and if that doesn't work, hitting it harder while it's still floating in the air near the net. . Sabalenka rarely sees a ball she doesn't want to hit.
After two weeks of working her way up the field that ended with her lifting the big silver trophy, she has no reason to think she needs to do anything else. She's having a lot of fun.
(David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)
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