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Sabalenka's shift from 'crazy kid' to calm champion

  • Gill Tan

Aryna Sabalenka may be just 25, but the world No.2 has developed a self-awareness beyond her years.

“If I look back on the Aryna two years ago and I look on the Aryna right now, I think it's two different players, two different people, I would say,” Sabalenka told

“I think I improved a lot … I'm happy that I was able to improve as a player that much, and also as a person."

Sabalenka's vibrant personality shines through, both on and off-court

The formidable right-hander, who is aiming to defend her Australian Open 2023 women's singles title on Saturday against Zheng Qinwen, has developed a level of professionalism and mental fortitude that – in the early stages of her career – was notably absent.

“I was [a] crazy kid,” recalls Sabalenka, who made her professional tennis debut at an ITF event in her hometown of Minsk in 2012, aged 13.

“I was smashing the racquet, hitting the ball so hard, trying to find the right target, and the balls was where? Like, all around the court, but not in the right target.

“Before 12, I broke probably seven racquets, which is crazy for a kid, right? Now I'm better, last year was only two at the US Open after the final,” she said, referencing her outlet for frustration after a disappointing 2-6 6-3 6-2 defeat to Coco Gauff in New York last September.

Sabalenka ascended to world No.1 after that final, fulfilling a goal set by father Sergei, who passed away unexpectedly aged 43 in late 2019.

Her introduction to the sport was somewhat of a happenstance: her father, who was a professional ice hockey player, put a racquet in her hand when they drove past empty courts when she was just six.

The defending Australian Open women’s singles champion has a playful personality that shines off-court, where she’s been autographing her fitness trainer Jason Stacy’s bald head as a quirky pre-match ritual.

Sabalenka, who was grateful for the support she received at Rod Laver Arena against Gauff in their semifinal on Thursday night, said she draws energy from the crowd to help navigate tense periods on court.

“It's really helped me to stay in the game and the tough moments,” Sabalenka explains.

“I really enjoy playing my best tennis in front of the people, and really enjoy when I see that people are really having fun and really enjoying watching me.

“When someone says like, 'my God, you're such a motivation for me', that's the best thing you can ever hear.”