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Women's Final preview: Mental mastery key for Sabalenka, Rybakina

  • Alex Sharp

Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina have disintegrated the resolve of six opponents each thus far at Australian Open 2023. 

On Saturday the pair will vie for one of the most cherished prizes in the sport.

Aryna Sabalenka [5] v Elena Rybakina [22]

Head to head: 3-0

For Sabalenka, it's no longer Grand Slam heartbreak, it's a narrative of positivity.

Three previous visits to major semifinals have seen the world No.5 narrowly fall short. On Thursday night, the 24-year-old's celebrations at reaching a maiden Grand Slam final were fairly muted.

She’s in business mode. 

"There is still one more match to go. It's good that I kind of break through in the semifinals, but there is one more match to go. I just want to stay focused," Sabalenka said.

"I’m just happy that I made this next step. I know that I have to work for that title."

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The tiger face tattooed on her forearm gives an indication of the competitor within the confines of the tennis court. 

In 2023, Sabalenka has struck the fine balance between burning ambition and maintaining composure to win all 10 matches and claim all 20 sets so far this season.

"I was trying [for] less screaming after some bad points or some errors. I was just trying to hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point," said Sabalenka.

"I'm still screaming 'c'mon' and all that stuff. I don't think it's that boring to watch me. I hope so. Just less negative emotions."

In contrast, Rybakina's ice cool demeanour has already reaped a Grand Slam reward.

The Kazakh has become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to topple three Grand Slam champions en route to the Australian Open final. 

Aryna Sabalenka (Getty Images)

Ruling Wimbledon last July has enabled Rybakina to trust herself more, to go and boss the big names. 

"I think it was a great challenge for me because for sure they have experience of winning Grand Slams, so it was nothing new for them," she said. 

The Kazakh achieved standout victories over world No.1 Iga Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko and then Victoria Azarenka to reach the final.

"This time, I would say it was a bit easier also compared to Wimbledon when I was playing for the first time quarters, semis, final. Everything was new, now I more or less understand what to expect."

Studying the mentality of elite sport has been a hot topic in recent seasons, and Sabalenka wanted to discover her own drive and her own understanding of what it takes to get to the very top.

In terms of handling her own emotions, Sabaleka bounces off her team and family.

"To be honest, I decided to stop working with a psychologist. I realised that nobody [other] than me will help," claimed the fifth seed.

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"In the pre-season I spoke to my psychologist saying, 'Listen, I feel like I have to deal with that by myself,' because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it's not fixing my problem.

"I just have to take this responsibility and I just have to deal with that. I'm my psychologist! I think I know myself quite well. I know how to handle my emotions."

The serve will be the key component in this match because Sabalenka and Rybakina are, unsurprisingly, among the tournament leaders. It could become the decisive factor on Saturday.

Rybakina tops the charts with 45 aces thus far and, more significantly, has won 80 per cent of points (156/196) when landing her devastating first serve.

Meanwhile, Sabalenka has been able to fend off 81 per cent of break points to lead the field with 89 per cent of service games going on her scorecard. 

The stats are impressive; the serving force seems off the charts when witnessed courtside.

For Sabalenka it’s a far cry from her summer Down Under in 2022. Then, the world No.5 was reduced to tears in Adelaide when double faults punctuated a torrid time on court. 

Last season, the 24-year-old worked with a biometrics coach and the serve is soaring once again.

Rybakina is crystal clear on her main weapon, "it's my serve for sure." Even so, she'll need to be motoring to end Sabalenka's unbeaten 2023 run.

The 22nd seed has been defeated in all three previous meetings with Sabalenka, the trio of tussles all going to a decider. These were all before Rybakina became a Grand Slam champion and the landscape has shifted significantly. 

Elena Rybakina (Getty Images)

"It's going to be a tough battle. It's important to have a good placement on the serve," Rybakina said.

"The same on the baseline. Just to play more deeper and do the same thing, try to come forward, just to expect maybe longer rallies than usual.

"Super happy to be in the final and ready to give everything I have left in one day."