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Sabalenka comes full circle in US Open semifinal return

  • Matt Trollope

The version of Aryna Sabalenka we have watched sweep into this fortnight’s US Open semifinals is unrecognisable compared with the version competing in January.

She commenced season 2022 at a career-high ranking of No.2 after back-to-back major semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open.

But suddenly, she couldn’t serve.

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Sabalenka’s struggles in Adelaide were hard to watch; she committed 18 double faults in her loss to Kaja Javan, before spraying 21 in losing to Rebecca Peterson.

She continued to battle after arriving at the Australian Open, but somehow, despite losing the first set in her first three matches, she won through to the last 16.

Kaia Kanepi ended her campaign in the fourth round, a night on which Sabalenka served up another 15 double faults.

What a redemptive arc she has enjoyed in New York.

Kanepi loomed again, this time in the second round, and built a 6-2 5-1 lead. She had already beaten Sabalenka in their only two previous meetings, and was poised to make the head-to-head 3-0 – especially when she held two match points in the subsequent tiebreak.

But Sabalenka escaped, earning a win that seemed to exorcise several demons.

She has dropped only one set since, returning to the US Open semifinals for the second straight year in what is her best result of the year so far.

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“I felt like that match, of course it gave me a lot of confidence, it gave me a lot of belief and also relief,” said Sabalenka, who has since gone on to beat Danielle Collins and Karolina Pliskova.

“At the same time I feel like I have second chance on this tournament. I'm still here, I'm still competing.

“Right now I'm really enjoying every second on the court. I'm really enjoying fighting.”

Fighting has been a central theme for the 24-year-old, both at this tournament, and throughout the entire season.

She engendered sympathy for the service troubles she endured, and respect for continuing to front up to compete, while also searching for solutions. 

In Adelaide, Sabalenka sought the advice of former Australian star Mark Philippoussis – a player renowned for his mighty serve – and has since started working with biomechanist Gavin MacMillan.

He has helped her fix issues – ball toss placement, a lack of spin – while also encouraging her to focus less on aces and instead on aiming for bigger targets to start the point.

“It was super tough to play without the serve. A lot of other stuff was going on in the world, a lot of pressure was on me,” she reflected, when asked about the main challenges she confronted.

“I was almost about to stop playing for a little while on the beginning of the season, but I was keep trying, keep pushing because I felt like there is always the reason for something like we are struggling with in this life. 

“I just keep thinking this way, keep working, keep fighting. Who knows.

“(Now) every day I'm serving better and better. Hopefully it can just keep going that way.”

Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players, due to the Ukrainian war, meant Sabalenka could not return to the tournament where she reached her first major semifinal in 2021.

The silver lining? She travelled to Miami, did “another pre-season”, and worked diligently on her serve.

Since remerging, there has been a notable perspective shift, no doubt informed by those challenges.

It was Pliskova who ended her run at Wimbledon last year. But, in a similarly-redemptive result, Sabalenka outplayed the Czech this time around at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

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“(When) I was like upcoming player, lower in the ranking. I was respecting every top player. I was kind of expecting great level from them. (Then when) I was in the top, every time she was making me move, every time she was making winners, I was like, What's going on? How is it possible?” Sabalenka admitted.

“I wasn't kind of really respect(ing) her. Right now I really expect great level from her. Every time she will make some winners, it's not going to pissing me off, it's going to be like, Okay, it's normal, she's making it, what next?”

An overjoyed Aryna Sabalenka celebrates her quarterfinal win over Karolina Pliskova at the US Open. (Getty Images)

Sabalenka proved she was prepared, beating Pliskova 6-1 7-6(4) to set up a meeting against either Iga Swiatek or Jessica Pegula.

Should she overcome either of them, she would advance to her first ever Grand Slam final.

“I definitely had really, really tough season. But at the same time I'm really appreciate this season because it show me even if something is not working for me, I'll be able to fight no matter what,” she said.

“It just shows me, like, how good as a competitor I am. 

“Here I am, still here at the US Open, still fighting for my dream. We'll see.”