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Sabalenka surges to the finish line after another scratchy start

  • Dan Imhoff

Resilience is shaping as the greatest weapon in Aryna Sabalenka's arsenal at Australian Open 2022 after another rousing resurgence from a set down in the third round on Saturday.

For the third straight match at Melbourne Park, the second seed reined in her blustery aggression and double-fault count to finish in a canter, this time over Czech 31st seed Marketa Vondrousova, 4-6 6-3 6-1.

MORE: Women's singles results AO 2022

It marked the second year running she had reached the fourth round and set a heavy-swinging showdown against seed-slaying specialist, Estonian Kaia Kanepi.

"Feels like I'm warming up in the first set and then I start playing," Sabalenka grinned. “I don't know. I really want to win it in two sets, and I think that's why I'm getting, like, so emotional in the first set, and that's why I'm like over-trying and I'm missing a lot.

"And after the first set when you're losing, you're kind of, okay, maybe I don't have to over-hit it or to panic."

"Yeah I'm really happy right now, mostly happy that I made only 10 double faults," Sabalenka laughed. "The atmosphere was unbelievable here today.

"She played unbelievable tennis. I pushed myself really hard and I'm really happy with this win."

MORE: Women's singles draw AO 2022

Sabalenka had yet to live up to her seeding at a major since the 2018 US Open, but maiden semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open last year had given cause for cautious optimism on the biggest stages ahead of the new season.

"I think it's more mental, because I put a lot of pressure on myself about my serve, and the last matches I was trying to control everything on my serve – my legs, my arm, the ball toss – and it was overthinking," Sabalenka said.

"Yeah, and I just stopped thinking. Like today, for example, I was focusing only on the good jump and that's it, because I have this muscle memory, and I just trust myself today, much more than in the first matches."

Serving implosions had severely dented those hopes in back-to-back defeats on the eve of her fifth Melbourne Park campaign and, while there was still much room for improvement on the problematic weapon, her third-round victory gave the clearest indication yet she was digging her way back to form.

"Yeah I had some trouble (with double faults but) I'll just keep working on my serve and hope it's a little better with every match," Sabalenka said. "I don't want to focus that far (into the second week).

"I just want to focus game by game. Just want to push myself and see how far I can go."

Sabalenka's shown enourmous resilience at AO 22

Vondrousova had struggled to emulate the type of form she produced at Roland Garros in 2019, which culminated in a runner-up showing in her maiden Grand Slam final against Ash Barty.

The Czech did own a 3-1 record against top-two opponents, however, with victories over Simona Halep at Indian Wells and Rome in 2019, and against Naomi Osaka en route to the silver medal at last year's Tokyo Olympic Games.

On Saturday, she sounded her intent to add Sabalenka to that list early on Margaret Court Arena.

The Czech knew rhythm was sure to be hard to come by against a heavy-hitter battling for form and her greater consistency proved critical as she closed out the opening set in 38 minutes.

Slow starts had not ultimately proved detrimental to Sabalenka in her opening two rounds and again, this was no cause for alarm.

If anything, it had helped strengthen her resolve with her back against the wall.

An early break for 2-0 helped ease the tension for the Belarusian after conceding the opening set and for much of a five-game stretch she was nigh on unplayable, but for a stretch of Vondrousova backhand brilliance to land her name on the board.

A 181km/h ace was a categorical statement of intent for 4-1 and Sabalenka sustained the advantage to level the match at the 76-minute mark.

The Belarusian had found her range again, winning 20 of 22 first-serve points for the set.

Marketa Vondrousova

Confidence was restored as a string of deep sliced backhands came as a welcome change-up on her way to the first break of the final set and she rammed home her advantage with another for 4-2.

Back-to-back forehand winners – her tally finished at 36 winners for the match – sent a sound message to the rest of the field.

Sabalenka was forcefully building momentum for a second-week strike.