Saturday, January 28, 2023

Sabalenka overcomes her demons and overwhelms the field

In the last couple of years, Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semifinals of majors three times, and it seemed, in some ways, inevitable, that she would take the next step. However, a combination of emotional unsteadiness on court and an increasingly unreliable serve also gave credence to the possibility that she wouldn't. But the world number 5 solved that puzzle in style these past two weeks in Melbourne, and topped off her run with a three-set win (4-6, 6-3, 6-4) over Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. 

Sabalenka approached her problems in a very Kerberesque way, identifying them and seeking expert help to overcome them. She worked with a biomechanics expert to get her serve back on track, and she also worked with a sports psychologist. Just the other day, however, Sabalenka said that she had stopped working with the psychologist. "I realized that nobody other than me will help," she said. "In pre-season, I spoke to my psychologist, saying, 'Listen, I feel like I have to deal with that by myself, because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it's not fixing my problem.'"

Well, of course it isn't. Note to Aryna: Sports psychologists (and all other mental health professionals) aren't there to fix your problems--they're there to guide you in fixing your problems. 

The Australian Open final definitely lived up to expectations. What Mary Carillo once dubbed "big babe tennis" (a tribute to Mary Pierce) was on display throughout the entire two hours and 28 minutes, but it was also big babe tennis with style. Rybakina showed off some very deft touch at the net, and of course, Sabalenka's considerable doubles skills were on display when needed.  

Rybakina's first serve is scary good. She sometimes hits aces with seeming abandon, and the ones that aren't aces are deadly, more often that not. Prior to the final, she had an Australian Open first serve win percenrage of almost 80, a statistic which is practically unknown. Her second serve, however, is inconsistent, but she made it to the final on the strength of that first serve. Rybakina hit nine aces in the final, but here's the stat that fans may not have expected: Sabalenka hit seventeen. 

Sabalenka's shadow did appear from time to time--she double-faulted seven times. But she didn't let it get to her. She hit 51 winners and made 28 unforced errors. Rybakina's stats in that department weren't bad, either--she hit 31 winners and made 25 unforced errors. However, "51 winners" says it all.

It's interesting to note that--in the first set, which Rybakina won--the Wimbledon champion's second serve win percentage was 75. But in the second set, it went down to 44, and in the third, it dipped all the way to 29. Fans logically expected Sabalenka to have problems with her serve (and she did, from time to time), but in the end, it was Rybakina who missed too many first serves and couldn't compensate with her second serve. Sabalenka's response to all the first and second set missed first serves was deadly.

Rybakina had to do a lot of heavy lifting during the tournament. She took out three major champions, including world number 1 Iga Swiatek; perhaps there was some mental fatigue in the final. But even if there was, she played extremely well, but she just wasn't up to handling the barrage of aces and winners coming off of Sabalenka's racket.

In other big Australian Open news, defending wheelchair singles champion Diede de Groot won the Australian Open for the third time in a row, but it was a bit of a wild ride. In 2020, de Groot began to have problems with her serve, and failed to defend both her Australian Open and French Open titles. Her service problems were on display again in the opening set of the final against 2nd seed Yui Kamiji. Kamiji won that set 6-0, which--in the world of Diede the Great--is a stunning phenomenon. 

de Groot double-faulted five times in that set, and six times in the second set, but Kamiji also struggled with her serve in that set. de Groot's 0-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory gives her four Australian singles titles, and a total of seventeen major singles titles. She and partner Aniek Van Koot defended their doubles titles, and that means that de Groot also possesses sixteen major doubles titles. Then there are her four Masters singles gold medals and two Masters doubles gold medals--and her Paralympic gold medals in both singles and doubles. The protogé of the great Esther Vergeer is a grand reflection of her mentor. 

And finally, in a contest between two Russian teens, 9th seed Alina Korneeva, playing in her first major, defeated 7th seed Mirra Andreeva 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 in a final that lasted three hours and eighteen minutes to play. I don't recall another major junior match lasting that long, and the fact that this one did is a tribute to the girls' fitness. The two 15-year-olds are also doubles partners. They were seeded 2nd at the Australian Open, and made it to the semifinals. The new junior doubles champions are the unseeded team of Renata Jamricho and Federica Urgesi. They defeated 4th seeds Hayu Kinoshita and Sara Saito in the final.

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