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Joyous Sabalenka explains key to her Australian Open success: “I needed those tough losses to understand myself better”

The Belarusian beat Elena Rybakina to win the Australian Open title, for her first slam title

Aryna Sabalenka champagne AO 2023 AI/Reuters/Panoramic

Aryna Sabalenka said the tough moments she’s experienced in her career made winning her first Grand Slam title even more enjoyable.

After defeats in three Grand Slam semi-finals, numerous early-round exits and having overcome a battle with the yips on her serve, the Belarusian picked up her first slam title in style on Saturday when she beat Elena Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

If suffering makes you stronger, then Sabalenka is living proof.

“I think it’s even more enjoyable, I would say, after all those tough matches,” said Sabalenka, who was presented with a glass of champagne by tournament director Craig Tiley as she arrived for her press conference. “I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me.”

“I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just different Aryna, you know.”

In her early years on Tour, Sabalenka often went in to a Grand Slam event among the favourites, only to fall early, the nerves getting the better of her on the biggest occasions.

She reached three Grand Slam semi-finals – two in 2021 and one in 2022 – but had never made it past the fourth round at the Australian Open until this year.

Sabalenka: “I started to respect myself more”

At times in the past, she said, she felt like an impostor and when the pressure was on her on court, she often fell short, her desperation to win leading to mistakes and her anger getting the better of her. But something changed inside her and over the past fortnight, she played almost flawless tennis to take the title.

“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for signature, I would be like, why are you asking for signature? I’m nobody. I’m a player. I don’t have a Grand Slam and all this stuff.,” she said.

“I just changed how I feel. I started to respect myself more. I started to understand that actually I’m here because I work so hard and I’m actually good player.

“Just having this understanding that I’m a good player…I can handle a lot of emotions, a lot of things on court. Every time I had a tough moment on court, I was just reminding myself that I’m good enough to handle all this just everything.”

Aryna Sabalenka Aus Open win
Sabalenka in almost disbelief after her Australian Open win – @ AI / Reuters / Panoramic

“Nobody tells you it’s going to be easy”

Against Rybakina on Saturday, Sabalenka had to stay calm after a first set in which she was outplayed and then, when she served for the match and double-faulted on her first Championship point, she needed to stay strong, mentally. It was never going to be easy.

“I think it’s really the best match (of my life), I would say it was,” she said. “She played an unbelievable tennis. I fought so hard to win this one. I think tennis was great. I’m really happy that it wasn’t easy match. I really enjoyed this battle.

“It was a good start for me (she said, laughing when asked about the double fault on match point). I was like, well, it’s going to be fun after the double-fault.

“The last game, yeah, of course I was a little bit nervous. I was keep telling myself like, nobody tells you that it’s going to be easy, you just have to work for it, work for it till the last point. That was a tough game. I’m super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions and win this one.”

Sabalenka will rise to No 2 in the world on Monday, equalling her career high. But with a first slam in the bag, she wants more, including the No 1 ranking, held by Iga Swiatek.

“We all have kind of the same goals. Winning Grand Slam, of course, it’s not the last one on my list,” she said.

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