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Aryna Sabalenka’s newfound confidence has her on cusp of first Grand Slam singles title

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Sep 8, 2021

  • D’Arcy MaineESPN.com

NEW YORK — Fifteen minutes after Aryna Sabalenka won her quarterfinal match at the US Open, she was outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium on the practice courts, blasting forehands and finessing her serve.

She had just beaten reigning French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova 6-1, 6-4 on Tuesday to reach the semifinals, but Sabalenka knew there was more work to be done, more things to be improved upon, and no time to waste.

“I feel like I didn’t move well today and I needed extra balls kind of a little bit to move, a little bit to feel my legs, to feel the move, to feel the court,” Sabalenka said later. “Also my serve was really, I wouldn’t say terrible, but was really bad today. I was trying to find the rhythm.

“So, yeah, I needed these extra balls today.”

Sabalenka has proved herself to be one of the best players on tour over the past several seasons. The 23-year-old Belarusian has won 10 singles titles, including four at the 1000 level and two this season. Despite her year-round contender status, she has often struggled at majors. Prior to 2021, she had never made it past the fourth round at any of the Grand Slam events.

But this year has been different. Taking ownership of her career and listening to her own voice, as well as working closely with a sports psychologist, Sabalenka is now into her second consecutive major semifinal. And she’s looking to make the most of this opportunity — and take it even further.

If that means late nights on the practice courts, so be it.

“I’m here in the semifinal and I have another chance to show my best and to show my level on the court,” Sabalenka said.

After finishing the 2020 season by winning back-to-back WTA titles, Sabalenka entered the new year declaring she would be focusing on singles despite having played doubles as well since the start of her career.

But when her longtime doubles partner, Elise Mertens, couldn’t find anyone else to play with at the Australian Open, Sabalenka agreed to play one final time at a Grand Slam. They won the title — their second major victory together — and Sabalenka surged to the world No. 1 doubles ranking. Still, she was insistent about her original decision despite being peppered with questions in her post-match news conference.

Doesn’t this trophy change any of your plans?

What makes you think playing less doubles is going to help your singles?

But Sabalenka’s mind was made up. She knew stepping away from doubles was what she needed to do to achieve her dream of winning a Grand Slam singles title, and she was going to put 100% of her energy into that.

Her strategy seems to have been a pretty good one.

She reached her first major semifinals at Wimbledon in July, when she fell to former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. But despite the loss, the experience of reaching the final four has changed her attitude and how she approaches tournaments. She explained her new mentality while wearing a “I may be wrong but I doubt it” T-shirt in her news conference.

“It’s changed that I’m not really thinking about the draw, like how far can I go,” Sabalenka said. “I just start enjoying every match. It sounds simple, but with all the things going around, it’s not easy to focus on each match, to enjoy it, to enjoy every fight, every challenge.

“This is everything I changed, I would say. My focus is like step by step. It’s working well.”

“I just start enjoying every match. It sounds simple, but with all the things going around, it’s not easy to focus on each match, to enjoy it, to enjoy every fight, every challenge.”

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka reached the semifinals in Cincinnati leading into the US Open, and aside from dropping a set in her opening-round match in New York against Nina Stojanovic, she has been nearly flawless. In the past four matches, no one has won more than six games against her. She defeated Mertens in the fourth round, and despite the deep familiarity of one another’s games from playing together, Mertens was impressed by what she had seen.

“I think she’s becoming an overall player, definitely a lot of power,” Mertens said after the match. “When her serve is working, when her third stroke is working, it’s very difficult to beat her. So she’s playing more consistent in the Grand Slams, especially this year.”

“I think she is a very good contender and also [has] the chance to win the title maybe.”

With a prominent tattoo of a tiger on her inner left forearm, Sabalenka’s fierceness has been on full display throughout the fortnight with her powerful hitting and even more intimidating grunts, or roars, after every swing of the racket.

Standing in Sabaenka’s way of her first Grand Slam final is Leylah Fernandez, the 19-year-old phenom who has become a global sensation with one extraordinary giant-slaying victory after another and her infectious charm. Sabalenka will have to bring the same level of ferocity to stop Fernandez’s surging momentum during Thursday’s first semifinal clash.

“I was following her games,” Sabalenka said. “She’s playing well, moving well. I would say it’s nothing to lose for her. She’s a great player. She’s fighting for every point.

“The crowd [is] there and they are supporting her really loud. I was practicing today, and we didn’t really need to watch the score because we heard, like, the crowd really yelling.”

They have never played against each other in singles, although they met in the round of 16 in doubles just last month in Montreal. Sabalenka and Mertens won 7-6 (4), 6-2 over Fernandez and Rebecca Marino. Sabalenka knows this match won’t be easy.

But she’s ready for the challenge.

Sabalenka has been working with a sports psychologist for the past several years but she said it was only recently when she finally opened up about the challenges she was having at majors. The admission was a breakthrough.

“All my problems on the Grand Slams [was because] actually I was afraid of something,” Sabalenka said last week.

The pair have worked hard (“It’s a long journey,” she said) to help her stay focused and in the moment, and she has tried to minimize her time on site at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on her off days in an attempt to stay away from the “tennis atmosphere.” She has spent her downtime watching movies in her hotel room, posting on Instagram and resting. Her approach and philosophy have changed dramatically, but as for her dreams, well, they remain the same.

“The goal is, as always, to win it,” Sabalenka said.

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