How Sabalenka found her inner calm and a new level of success


Aryna Sabalenka was, understandably, a little revved up in the first-set semifinal tiebreak against Magda Linette.

Up 4-0, she missed her first serve. Hurrying a little too quickly to the baseline, Sabalenka quickly began her service motion — then, inexplicably, stopped. Closing her eyes, she paused, took a long breath. The next swing was forceful but measured, a rare second-serve ace, and Sabalenka sailed off to a 7-6 (1), 6-2 victory that delivered her to a new place.

After three failed visits to a major semifinal, she finds herself in the last match of the Australian Open, Saturday (7:30 p.m., 3:30 a.m. ET) opposite Elena Rybakina. The secret of her success can be found in that deep breath, for in the span of an offseason, Sabalenka has achieved a remarkable makeover.

In the past, when the heat was on in the majors, Sabalenka often found herself out of her comfort zone. In her first major semifinal, in 2021 versus Karolina Pliskova, Sabalenka had more winners and aces. And yet, Pliskova overcame a one-set deficit.

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Later at the US Open, Sabalenka lost another three-set match, to 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez. Ranked No.2 at the time, Sabalenka hit a sensational 46 winners — but 52 unforced errors cost her against the No.73-ranked player.

A year later, Sabalenka faced No.1 Iga Swiatek in another US Open semifinal. Sabalenka won the first set and was up a break in the third, but Swiatek won the last four games on her way to the title.

Over the years, Sabalenka has worked with sports psychologists to temper her notorious temper. No more.

“I realized that nobody than me will help, you know?” she told reporters. “On the preseason, 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. Yeah, I’m not working with psychologist any more. I’m my psychologist.”

And while defeating Linette in the semifinal was one of the biggest wins of her career, it can be argued that Sabalenka hasn’t felt anything approaching oppressive heat in her six previous matches.

In the bottom half of the draw, Marketa Vondousova, Linette, Varvara Gracheva and Katie Volynets did the heavy lifting, upsetting No.2 Ons Jabeur, No.4 Caroline Garcia, No.8 Daria Kasatkina and No.9 Veronika Kudermetova, respectively. The only seeded players Sabalenka has beaten are No.12 Belinda Bencic and No.26 Elise Mertens.

Rybakina, meanwhile, took down (in order) last year’s finalist here, Danielle Collins, No.1 Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko — who upset No.7 Coco Gauff — and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.

While Rybakina is the statistical serving leader, Sabalenka isn’t far behind in aces (No.3 with 29), serve speed (121 mph, tied for No.3) and first-serve win percentage (75, tied for No.6). The big number for Sabalenka remains double faults. She had 428 last year, by far the highest total. So far this season, she’s averaging 3.7 per match — less than half of last year’s 7.8.

Sabalenka says she’s playing a “boring” brand of tennis. The result: She’s won all 10 matches she’s played and 20 of 20 sets.

“I wish I would be like that few years ago,” she said, smiling. “Finally I understand what everyone was looking for and asking for. I need to be a little bit boring on court. I was trying to less screaming after some bad points or some errors. I was just, like, trying to hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point.”

That next point will come in the first major final of her career. At the WTA Finals in Fort Worth back in November, Sabalenka hit only two double faults — but they cost her a pivotal tiebreak and, ultimately, a loss to Garcia. It’s the only tiebreak she’s lost among her past nine.

The final could well come down to a few moments like that. Will Sabalenka meet them with the calm we’ve seen so far this season — or revert to form?

A snapshot from the semifinal’s second set might hold the answer.

Leading 5-1, Sabalenka had held two match points on Linette’s serve but squandered them with a pair of unforced errors, a backhand into the net and a screaming forehand that flew long. It was a microcosm of her recent career — going for too much when it mattered most.

Yet, while serving at 5-2, 30-all, Sabalenka backed off ever so slightly. She hit a 116 mph serve outside — forceful but measured. On her fourth match point, there was a gleam in her eye when Linette sent back a waist-high ball. Sabalenka set her feet, hesitated for a split second and spun the ball a little more than usual, giving it more than enough air to clear the net. It was a walk-off forehand crosscourt winner, but it also marked the personal evolution in progress this fortnight.

There was no scream, no ecstatic fist pump. Sabalenka simply turned to her box and smiled.

“There is still one more match to go,” she said. “It’s good that I kind of breakthrough in the semifinals, but there is one more match to go. I just want to stay focused.”


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