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"Play to win, not to not lose": Inside Team Sabalenka's mindset

  • Vivienne Christie

An Australian Open final is a place of happy memories for AO 2023 women’s champion Aryna Sabalenka.

But as she prepares to meet Zheng Qinwen for the chance to claim a second consecutive title in Melbourne, her coaching team is urging the No.2 seed to consider the 2024 championship match as a fresh start.

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“In previous tournaments where she was defending champion … we never see this tournament as like a defend. Because we already, we won it, so this one is another one,” her coach, Anton Dubrov, told media on Friday. 

Sabalenka's fitness trainer Jason Stacy, and coach Anton Dubrov

“It's not about defending, because this one is a new one. It's always (a) new one. Every next one, no matter what the tournament, would be like harder because of the expectations … so you just have to manage it, understand what you're able to do, what you're not, and just go for it.”

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Sabalenka’s fitness trainer, Jason Stacy, agrees. “The way I like to put it … it’s just that mentality of we're here to play to win, not to not lose,” he said.

It’s an approach that took Sabalenka to the semifinals or better at all four Grand Slams in 2023. With another Grand Slam final run at the US Open, the 25-year-old became the 29th player to rank world No.1 on the WTA Tour.  

Sabalenka held that position until the last week of the season, when Iga Swiatek claimed the WTA Finals and, with that title, regained top spot. 

Signing Stacy's head has become Sabalenka's pre-match good luck ritual

“We had like a team meeting straight after, had dinner together, and it was all kind of emotions,” said Dubrov of Sabalenka’s bittersweet end to her career-best 2023 season.

“It was disappointment, but also, like, we talk a lot about our achievements, like, what we did great and what we can do better. And I think the main topic was about, ‘okay, so what was the next one?’” 

The next one, of course, was the Australian Open, where the 25-year-old has powered through six matches without the loss of a set.

Dubrov is delighted with Sabalenka’s smooth progress through the draw.

“I think it was pretty good start for us, in the first few matches. We just got our, Aryna got her, rhythm, her flow,” he noted.

“I would say the first really tough match for us from all the sides was with Amanda (Anisimova) in the fourth round. Was pretty good managing energy, stick to the plan, and everything was smooth and clean.

“So I think it was, like, extra confidence and belief in her game and style.” 

Dubrov points to the hard work that’s helped Sabalenka develop that mindset.

“The main part here is, like, that she trust the process, what we're doing outside of the matches, I mean on the court and outside of the court,” he said.

“She's also trying to develop every day better and better just to know where she can do more, where she can be more emotional, less emotional. She's kind of managing better all the aspects.”

With those improvements, Sabalenka has earned the opportunity to become the first woman to claim back-to-back Australian Open titles since Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and 2013. 

There’s a quiet confidence among her team.

“She's having more and more discipline to stick with what the plan is, the strategy, the things we have been working on. She's trusting herself and understanding what she's doing a bit better,” said Stacy.

“I think seeing that, no matter how the match is going, how she might be feeling or what she's thinking, she's just having the discipline just to be grounded where she is in the moment, and just do the next step or whatever that happens to be with part of the plan.”