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Boxes ticked: Sabalenka as good as her word

  • Simon Cambers

For Aryna Sabalenka, one was never going to be enough.

After finishing runner-up at the US Open last year, she could not hide her disappointment, feeling that she had beaten herself as much as Coco Gauff had denied her the title with a resilient performance in the final.

“The good news is that it's me against me,” Sabalenka said at the time. “The bad one is that I'm still having these issues playing against myself, I would say. But it's OK. I'll work harder so next time I'm not going to get even a little bit tired on court, and so I'll be better.”

Sabalenka's Australian Open title defence was emphatic, and cathartic

Sabalenka was true to her word. After an intensive off-season, she came out firing at the start of the Australian summer, reaching the final in Brisbane and then marching to victory in Melbourne, the first woman to successfully defend the Australian Open title since Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13.

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Right from the start of the tournament, when she hammered Ella Siedel for the loss of just one game, it was obvious that Sabalenka was intent on adding a second slam to her name, an achievement that elevates her above the one-hit wonders.

Only Gauff, in the semifinals, got close to taking a set, the American unable to serve out the opener before going down 7-6(2) 6-4. No one else, including Zheng Qinwen in the final, got more than three games in a set.

MORE: Sabalenka v Zheng match stats

“Actually it's been in my mind that I didn't want to be that player who won it and then disappeared,” Sabalenka said after her win.

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“I just wanted to show that I'm able to be consistently there and I'm able to win another one. I really hope more, more than two, but for me it was really important.

“That's why, no matter what the result, win or lose, we are always working hard, we were always looking for things to improve in my game. It's all about the process and make sure that, about the discipline, make sure that you're always there, you always show up, and you always work hard.”

Sabalenka praised her team's role in her back-to-back Melbourne triumphs

The statistics tell a story, with Sabalenka tied first for points won on her first serve, at 78 per cent. For a player who had a significant double-fault problem just a few years ago, her transformation into perhaps the world’s best server is little short of remarkable.

“Definitely that year when I was struggling a lot helped me a lot to understand that, even if my serve is not working, I'm able to fight for it, and I have good return,” she said.

“Right now when I'm serving a little bit better than that year, definitely I feel more controlled on my serve. Even if I'm down in the score in my serve or even if someone breaks me, I am not getting crazy like I used to, and I have this belief that no matter what happen, I'm able to fight for it. I have a lot of weapons, not only my serve.”

There are times on court when Sabalenka looks almost personally affronted when she misses a ball. That on-court persona contrasts with the way she is off the court, laughing after almost every answer in press, playing games with her team.

“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'm on the court off the court, I think I wouldn't have my team around me, and I think I would be alone,” she said, laughing.

“But it takes me so much time to kind of like become who I am right now on court, to have this control (of) myself, and to understand myself better. It's been a long journey and way to go.”

That journey, though, is just beginning.