Aryna Sabalenka in control of her own Australian Open destiny: ‘I’m my psychologist’

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus reacts

Aryna Sabalenka has taken control on and off the court and has a first Grand Slam title in her sights at the Australian Open.

The 24-year-old has been tipped as a future major champion for the last five years but her matches were frequently emotional rollercoasters and her three previous Grand Slam semi-finals all ended in defeat.

There has been something different about Sabalenka at Melbourne Park this year, though, and she is yet to drop a set in 10 matches in 2023, culminating in a first slam semi-final success against Magda Linette.

The Belarusian, who could become the first singles player to win a Slam title under a neutral flag, celebrated that milestone with an understated clench of the fist before revealing she has stopped working with a sports psychologist.

“I realised 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’.

“I just have to take this responsibility and I just have to deal with that. I’m my psychologist.”

And Sabalenka will be telling herself ahead of taking on Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the biggest match of her life to embrace the occasion and everything that comes with it.

“I think that’s OK to feel a little bit nervous,” she said. “It’s a big tournament, big final. If you’re going to start trying to do something about that, it’s going to become bigger.”

It is all a far cry from 12 months ago, when Sabalenka was deep in a serious case of the serving yips, hitting 56 double faults in four matches in Melbourne.

Remodelling her action with help from a biomechanical expert helped fix the problem, and her coach Anton Dubrov believes it was a blessing in disguise.

“I think what happened last year was actually maybe even a positive for Aryna,” he said. “She understands that one of her biggest weapons is missing, but she’s still fighting with anyone.

“So she understands that she’s actually tough. At the end of the year, once she got this new motion of serve and this toughness before, all together, it’s like she understands that actually she’s a pretty great player.”

Saturday’s clash will pit two of the biggest hitters in the women’s game against each other.

Rybakina has used her Wimbledon experience to make smooth progress through the draw, knocking out world No 1 Iga Swiatek along the way.

The Kazakh’s huge serve has been her biggest weapon but she has also been formidable off the ground in conditions that suit flat hitters.

Elena Rybakina in action

Rybakina’s coach Stefano Vukov said: “I think experience is a big factor. Once you go through the roller-coaster ride once, you know what to expect, more or less, emotionally. For the team and for the player, definitely.

“I think we had a really, really good pre-season. I think she’s improved a lot physically, tactically, tennis-wise, and something that maybe we didn’t do as well before winning Wimbledon, so that was more of a surprise than this.

“I was expecting for her to start doing well. Obviously, you never know if you’re going to go this far, but preparation was key.”

The pair have worked together for four years, with Rybakina climbing from around 200 in the world now to the top 10 – a position she would have occupied last summer had Wimbledon awarded ranking points.

The 23-year-old is almost laughably composed on court, barely celebrating even after winning Wimbledon.

Vukov believes her character is a big part of her success, saying: “She’s a wonderful girl. She listens, listens a lot. That’s very rare, I think. She’s involved 100 per cent into the sport. Very calm, stoic.

“But a sweetheart, definitely, with amazing family, amazing parents. No one really puts pressure on her.”

Croatian Vukov found a spotlight shone on their coaching relationship during Rybakina’s semi-final win over Victoria Azarenka, with critics picking up on his harsh words to his charge.

He defended his conduct, saying: “I think that it’s easy to just take clips and then make something controversial. This is part of our sport. It’s normal.

“There is 10,000 people out there. To get the attention of the player is definitely not easy. I have to scream out something if she’s off track. Then people can interpret this how they want.

“But, at the end of the day, we are just doing our job. Coaching is now allowed, and I think she’s using it in the best possible way.”