A little over a year ago, Aryna Sabalenka celebrated her victory in the third round of the Australian Open by cracking a joke, in an on-court interview, stating that she “only” committed ten double faults. “Only” was not an irony. In the previous round, there were 19. In the debut, 12. Two days later, the Belarusian was eliminated from the tournament with another 15 double faults on her account.
It was a problem that affected Arena’s game for most of the 2022 season. At the WTA 1000 in Toronto, already in the second half, there were 34 double faults in two matches (five sets played). At San Jose it was even worse: 43 in two games. Something had to be done, and Sabalenka decided to ask for help. He was humble enough, something not uncommon in elite tennis, to realize he would not find a solution on his own and sought the help of a biomechanic (a branch that still finds resistance and even prejudice on the part of the senior-school tennis technicians).
Results came in quickly, and Sabalenka reached the semi-finals of the US Open, which was unthinkable for someone who had given away so many free points to her rivals. In New York, in his six appearances, he committed 35 double faults. Average less than three double faults per set, which means a huge lead. The technical development was evident.
So we get to 2023, the next season. Sabalenka begins the year by contesting the WTA 500 in Adelaide 1 and winning the title without dropping sets. The key wasn’t the strongest, but tennis worked, and lifting the trophy didn’t hurt anyone’s confidence.
Then came the Australian Open, and the winning streak continued. Technical details also contributed: the balls in this year’s tournament lose pressure faster and take up less spin. It’s perfect for those who 1) play with less spin; and 2) help those who play harder. When Rafael Nadal complained about the balls used in Melbourne, Australian John Millman emphasized the matter: “Nick Kyrgios, Hubert Hurkacz and Taylor Fritz are going to be very dangerous in this AO.” Millman cited three tennis players with big serves and aggressive games, the same characteristics that characterize Sabalenka tennis.
Because Ariana kept causing chaos. He beat Martinkova, Rogers, Mertens, Bencic, Vikek and Linette to reach the final. After one of those wins, he remembered his quest to help serve.
“I thought it was my mentality, but it wasn’t. We changed a lot of things about how we work on my serve. At the end of the season, when I started working with the biomechanics guy, he helped me a lot. We watched a lot of videos. It showed me that I wasn’t what I was.” OK with my serve. I’m really glad all this happened. Before, I wasn’t open to that (that kind of help). I’m going to say ‘You know what, my serve is good, I don’t want to change anything’.” In fact, even when my transmission came, he wasn’t sure. At that point, I was open to anything. I learned a lot of new things about my service.”
Then came the final match against Elena Rybakina, the current Wimbledon champion and also the owner of a great serve (it was she who hit the most yards at the Australian Open) and a solid match. And Rybakina took the lead, precisely with great services and with five double faults from Sabalenka – some at such delicate moments as the breaking point.
So, the Belarusian showed all her courage. He continued to fill the ball with his hands, stopped making double faults and began to lead the most rallies against an opponent who could no longer be aggressive or accurate. The tide has turned. Sabalenka went on the offensive match after match, winner after winner, choking Rybakina to victory. In all there were 51 winning balls and only 28 unforced errors – obscene numbers for someone playing with such a small margin of safety and against opposition who also attack all the time.
The numbers help tell the story of a title that began with a rare gesture of humility (in a game of tennis!), included valuable technical tweaks and ended with a spunky attitude. Congratulations, Ariana Sabalenka.
Things I think I think:
In general, the level of the final was very high. 82 winners and 53 unforced errors, in a duel of tennis players who were looking for winning balls all the time, are proof of the tennis quality shown by Sabalenka and Rybakina.
– It is difficult to judge how much “guilt” Rybakina has for attacking less than the second set. Sabalenka “found” the Kazakh’s serve and suddenly led the rallies even in the return points. Any attempt at a counterattack by Rybakina was high risk. She chose to give up fewer points for free, but ended up giving Sabalenka a chance to gain more speed and confidence. That’s how it happened, but it could also have ended with a few mistakes from the Belarusian, as we’ve seen happen dozens of times.
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