By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, January 21, 2023
The sound of Aryna Sabalenka’s sledgehammer shots screamed damaging intent.
Making major noise in Melbourne, Sabalenka credits a more serene state of mind with undefeated start to 2023.
The fifth-seeded Sabalenka swept her former doubles partner, Elise Mertens 6-2, 6-3, rolling into the Australian Open fourth round for the third straight season.
The woman sporting the colorful tiger tattoo on her left forearm has restored the roar to her game, while calming the noises in her hand and tuning into a more positive approach on court.
Sabalenka raised her record to 7-0 on in 2023, including her run to her 11th career title in Adelaide earlier this month. She’s not only winning, she’s been commanding: Sabalenka has swept all 14 sets she’s played this season.
The three-time Grand Slam semifinalist said “overdreaming” and “overthinking” on court have been stumbling blocks to her pursuit of a singles Slam in the past.
Managing her mind and keeping things simple are keys Sabalenka cites to capturing a maiden major in Melbourne.
“I just have to stay the same, because before, in the second week, I remember I was getting nervous, I was overthinking, overdreaming, you know. I really believed and believe that the only one thing that was missing was like kind of my emotions, that I was too emotional on court,” Sabalenka told the media in Melbourne. “I really believe if I’m going to stay the same, like, mindset, the same calm on court, I really believe that I can get it.”
The big-hitting Belarusian blasted 32 winners—20 more than her former doubles partner—in just 17 games.
Amid the storm of winners she can unleash, Sabalenka says she’s striving to keep a calm and clear head when stress arrives.
“Finally I understand what everyone was looking for and asking for,” Sabalenka said. “Yeah, as I said, I need to be a little bit boring on court. I mean, it’s still about a lot of positive emotions for me, but I’m trying to stay away from negative and just fight for every point.”
Most importantly, Sabalenka has sharpened her serve and minimized the double faults that devoured her game, at times, in recent years.
Last season, Sabalenka clanked a combined 39 double faults in her two Adelaide losses and looked lost on second serve on occasion.
Through three match wins, Sabalenka has hit 10 aces against seven double faults.
During Slam second weeks the quality of opponents and stress levels spike considerably. Sabalenka has faced just one Top 20 opponent during this 7-0 surge to start the season.
Next up for Sabalenka is Olympic gold-medal champion Belinda Bencic, who arrives for their fourth-round showdown in fantastic form. The 12th-seeded Bencic beat giant killer Camila Giorgi 6-2, 7-5 to reach the AO fourth round for the first time since 2016. Bencic, who collected her seventh title at the Adelaide International 2 tournament, improved to 7-1 on the season.
Former world No. 4 Bencic and Sabalenka have split two prior meetings. The sublot of their fourth round clash is coach Dimitry Tursunov, who currently coaches Benic and formerly guided Sabalenka.
The woman who is armed with the eye of the tiger aims to play tiger tennis to keep her maiden major hunt going.
“I hink it’s about first few shots. Like, I feel like I have to stay really aggressive in the first few shots, and then the easy, like — how to say — slower ball or shorter ball will come,” Sabalenka said. “So I think it’s all about fast feet on the first few shots. I have to be like really a tiger, like ready, stay low and ready for that.”
Photo credit: Getty