Aryna Sabalenka gets No 1 monkey off her back – How she overcame serving yips to usurp Iga Swiatek

Shahida Jacobs
Aryna Sabalenka celebrates
Aryna Sabalenka celebrates Australian Open win

Aryna Sabalenka will become the 29th world No 1 since the WTA Rankings were introduced and you have to say it is a case of hard work finally paying off.

At the start of the 2023 season, Sabalenka was a staggering 7,160 points behind Iga Swiatek and many pundits wondered if her chance to become No 1 had come and gone.

But after her Australian Open run the mood lifted again and she admitted that it was top of her to-do list, telling Arab News in an interview: “It’s my first priority, I would say; I really want it.”

Let’s rewind back to the 2022 campaign when the Belarusian started the year at No 2 in the rankings behind Ashleigh Barty and it generally looked like it would be the year when she would make her Grand Slam breakthrough as she finished the previous campaign with back-to-back semi-finals at the Wimbledon and the US Open.

But her year got off to a disastrous start as she had a nightmare Australian Open campaign due to her serving yips and that theme, coupled with low confidence, continued for most of the year. She served an astonishing 428 double faults in 601 service games in 2022.

With Barty winning the 2022 Australian Open and Sabalenka exiting in the fourth round, the gap at the top increased.

WTA Rankings after 2022 Australian Open

1. Ashleigh Barty 8,331
2. Aryna Sabalenka 5,698
4. Iga Swiatek 4,456

Barty’s retirement in March 2022 meant the No 1 ranking was up for grabs, but Sabalenka faltered and it was Swiatek who replaced the Australian at the top.

And things didn’t get much better after that as by the time Swiatek rose to the top, she had a 2,000-point advantage over the Belarusian in fifth place and by mid-May Sabalenka had slumped to No 8.

But the rebuilding process was well underway midway through the year and at one point she hired a biomechanical expert to help fix her serving yips. The confidence slowly returned and so did the positive results as she finished the year with a semi-final run to the US Open and a runners-up spot at the WTA Finals.

But there were still question marks over her ability to pull it off on the biggest stages ahead of the 2023 season, especially with Swiatek dominating the previous campaign.

WTA Rankings ahead of 2023 Australian Open

1. Iga Swiatek 11,085
5. Aryna Sabaleka 3,925

But the Belarusian got off to a blistering start as she won the Adelaide International and her maiden Grand Slam, the Australian Open, and suddenly the gap was reduced to 4,385 and she steadily chipped away at the lead.

With Swiatek not the force she was the previous year, an opportunity to become world No 1 waved for Sabalenka at the French Open, but she suffered a shock semi-final defeat to Karolina Muchova and the Pole went on to successfully defend her crown. Another opportunity beckoned at Wimbledon, but again it slipped out of her grasp.

Neither of them set the world alight during the start of the North American hard-court season and it meant Sabalenka had another chance to replace Swiatek at No 1 after the US Open.

WTA Rankings ahead of 2023 US Open

1. Iga Swiatek 9,955
2. Aryna Sabalenka 8,746

Although the gap at the start of the tournament was 1,209 points, it was only 11 points in live timing as Swiatek was defending 2,000 points while Sabalenka only had 780 points to defend (7,966 vs 7,955).

All Sabalenka had to do was equal Swiatek’s result and ahead of the fourth-round US Open clashes, John McEnroe claimed Sabalenka was desperate to get the monkey off her back, saying: “I think she can’t help but think about it because people bring it up.”

The tennis great added: “She’s desperate to try and get over the hump and finally at least call herself at some point the No 1-ranked player in the world. It would be absolutely amazing.”

And barely a day later Sabalenka achieved her goal as Swiatek’s fourth-round defeat to Jelena Ostapenko paved the way for the 25-year-old to become the 29th WTA world No 1 and the second Belarusian after Victoria Azarenka to achieve the feat.

READ MORE: Women who have spent most weeks at No 1 in WTA Rankings: Steffi Graf’s record safe, Iga Swiatek moves up