On Monday, when Aryna Sabalenka winded up her highly anticipated fourth-round match against Belinda Bencic, she faced a critical moment where everything might have changed. Sabalenka was down 0-30 on her serve at 4-2 in the second set after winning the first.
She hit three massive first serves and a 96 mph second serve, resulting in two unreturnable serves and two forehand winners. Sabalenka claimed four consecutive points, then cruised through the rest of the match to cement her position as the favorite and most in-form woman in the Australian Open field with a 7-5, 6-2 victory.
The notion of the Belarussian executing such a clutch serving sequence under duress was ridiculous this time last year. Sabalenka had always served a large proportion of double faults, but she began last season with her serve in complete disarray. During a competition in Adelaide, the 24-year-old could not land second serves, so she resorted to underarm serves. She had 440 double faults at the end of the season, 151 more than the next worst offender.
After attempting to handle the matter with her team for most of last year, she ultimately sought the far more radical remedy of working with a biomechanics consultant to alter her service motion.
“At the time, I was open to everything.”I was simply like, ‘Please, someone help me repair this fucking serve,'” Sabalenka explained.
Despite how hard it was to play tennis for so much last year, Sabalenka says she persevered. She had previously believed that her serving problems resulted from a mental block and had persevered for a long time in the expectation that it would correct itself. Horrible serving performances compelled her to address the technological source of her problems and concentrate on developing a new service motion.
“I’m overjoyed that this occurred with my serve previously,” she remarked. “Previously, I would not have been receptive to it. ‘You know what, my serve is good; I don’t want to alter anything,’ I’d say. Even when my serve was working, it wasn’t quite right.”
Sabalenka spent her biomechanics sessions analyzing films of herself, figuring out why she had so many problems putting the serve in the court, and then discussing how to reconstruct the service action. “We viewed several videos. He simply demonstrated what was wrong with my serve and why I couldn’t put it in. “Just a lot of videos, a lot of chatting, a lot of experimenting,” she explained.
As a result, it has evolved dramatically. Her former intricate, hitchy technique has replaced a smoother, shorter serve. While she used to add slice to her serve, she has slowed down and emphasized topspin. She had 56 double faults in four matches at the Australian Open last year. She has 11 this year.
“I’ve accomplished a lot,” she stated. “I worked quite hard. Even when my serve was a ‘disaster,’ as you put it. I spent a lot of time practicing my serve. “I continued trying, believing, and changing.”
The outcomes have been evident at the start of a new season. Sabalenka won her 11th career championship in Adelaide a year after serving 19 and 21 double faults in successive matches. She is yet to drop a set in 2023 after four rounds in Melbourne. Sabalenka was sensational against Bencic, effectively reducing the Swiss to a spectator with the ferocity of her groundstrokes.
Nonetheless, her success is due to more than simply a better serve. Sabalenka arrived on the circuit as a teenager wanting to crush every ball as hard as she could with little regard for how to construct points and make proper judgments. Then, when she rose to the top 10, she struggled in great slam competitions, failing to go past the fourth round of any slam until 2021.
Those difficulties were fixed at the start of this season. Sabalenka is playing more intelligent tennis, with more topspin on her forehand and more thought put into when and how she hits the ball. She is still a nuclear ball-striker who smacks as huge a ball as anyone on the circuit, but she has learned how to play a more sustainable style of tennis with both attitude and approach. She also reached her third grand slam semi-final at the US Open, and the strain of participating in the greatest competitions has subsided.
Sabalenka is the overwhelming favourite in the women’s draw following the departure of world No 1 Iga Witek on Sunday, and she has played the greatest tennis of any other player since the start of the year. In the quarter-finals, she will play the in-form Donna Veki, who defeated 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova 6-2, 1-6, 6-3. Meanwhile, France’s Caroline Garcia, the fourth seed, was knocked out in the fourth round by Poland’s Magda Linette, 7-6(3), 6-4.