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“No matter what happens on court, I’ll be able to get through it” – Sabalenka is guided by newfound calm in Australia

Her first three major semi-finals didn’t go the way she wanted, but this version of Aryna Sabalenka is committed to learning from her mistakes and making the most of her next chance

Aryna Sabalenka at the 2023 Australian Open Image Credit: AI/Reuters/Panoramic Aryna Sabalenka at the 2023 Australian Open Image Credit: AI/Reuters/Panoramic

Don’t call it confidence. It’s something different, says Aryna Sabalenka. She’s not the same player she was when she was younger, when a bundle of nerves and expectations weighing down her otherworldly talents and humanizing her against the field.

She’s always been a powerhouse, for sure. A rare mix of the furious and the jaw-dropping, with faster feet than most realize, and a pretty good feel for the ball as well. But she hasn’t been a closer, and she’s suffered as the stakes got higher at the Grand Slams, time and time again.

Three Grand Slam semi-finals have come and gone, and each time Sabalenka has been on the losing end by the exact same third-set score: 6-4.

Close, but no cigar.

“Right now I’m a little bit more calm on court. I think I really believe that this is the only thing that was missing in my game. If I can keep stay that focus and that calm on court, I can get through it.”

Aryna Sabalenka

But something about Sabalenka, who is still only 24 years old, feels different this time around. Just don’t call it confidence.

It’s not confidence, it’s calm

“I feel like I have belief that no matter what happens on court, I’ll be able to get through it,” she says.

Sabalenka has talked about her new mindset all month, and after her 6-3, 6-2 victory over Donna Vekic she talked about it again. Not because she didn’t think anyone was listening, but because she seems to benefit from reminding herself what is most important to her at this stage of her career: calm.

“I feel a little bit different,” she says, comparing herself to the player that lost Grand Slam semi-finals to Karolina Pliskova at Wimbledon in 2021, Leylah Fernandez at the US Open that same year and Iga Swiatek at the US Open in 2022. “I think that I lost those three semi-finals just because I wasn’t really calm on court. I was overdoing things. I really wanted to get this Slam. I was rushing a lot. I was nervous a lot. Screaming, doing all this stuff.

Aryna Sabalenka 2023 Australian Open
Aryna Sabalenka 2023 Australian Open || AI / Reuters / Panoramic

“Right now I’m a little bit more calm on court. I think I really believe that this is the only thing that was missing in my game. If I can keep that focus and that calm on court, I can get through it.”

Her critics will say “let’s talk again after the tournament,” and that’s fair, but anyone who watched Sabalenka methodically work her way past Donna Vekic on Wednesday in Rod Laver Arena knows that something special is going on with the former world No 2. Vekic threw everything at Sabalenka in the opening set, earning 10 break points, but she couldn’t sway the scoreline.

The Croatian told reporters that she noticed the difference.

She was asked if there was anything different about Sabalenka today.

“Maybe she was a little bit calmer than in our previous matches,” she said unprompted.

Bigger, safer targets

The calm manifests itself in the tactics as well. Sabalenka says she’s more patient on the court in big matches now. She’s not in a hurry to get it over with, she’s willing to grind through the pain and the anxiety of the difficult moments. It was obvious today as she fought off the best that Vekic, a player who defeated her in five of their previous six meetings, had to offer.

“Before I was trying to go for aces, go for crazy shots to get easily out, to get out easily from those situations,” she said. “Right now I keep saying, ‘No, work for it. It’s not going to be easy. You have your shots, you have your serve. Just work for it and go for bigger targets.”

It’s certainly not a guarantee that the fourth Grand Slam semi-final will be the charm, but the trend is in place for Aryna Sabalenka. She’s turning over every rock in journey, looking for ways to improve her game. If it doesn’t happen against Magda Linette in the semi-finals, it is bound to happen one day soon.

When you give yourself chances in this sport on a consistent basis, good things tend to happen…

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