DUBAI: A little less than a year ago, Aryna Sabalenka was ready to give up on her dream of winning a Grand Slam singles title.
She had just suffered back-to-back opening-round losses in Miami and Indian Wells, and was going through some serious problems with her serve, committing 95 double faults in her first six matches of the 2022 season alone.
“After the Miami Open it was really tough. I was all over the place, it wasn’t me, I wasn’t Aryna, I was a depressed little girl,” the world No.2 told Arab News on Sunday at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
“Definitely last year I was like, ‘OK, I will never get it [a Grand Slam trophy].’ It was the moment and it was a really tough period for me. But I’m happy that I got through it and still didn’t lose this belief.”
Sabalenka spent the rest of the season battling through matches, finding ways to win without her serve, and searching for solutions to recover one of her biggest assets on court.
Before the Cincinnati tournament in early August she began working with biomechanics coach Gavin MacMillan, who helped her make adjustments to her serving technique.
The work immediately paid dividends as Sabalenka reached the semifinals in Cincinnati and the US Open before finishing the year with a runner-up showing at the WTA Finals and a top-five ranking to go along with it.
Carrying the momentum from a strong end to her 2022 campaign, Sabalenka kicked off 2023 with a bang, lifting the Adelaide trophy before claiming a maiden Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open.
Her triumph in Melbourne was a special full-circle moment as the 24-year-old recorded her biggest success at the same place where she had struggled a mere 12 months earlier.
Players, pundits, and fans have been showering Sabalenka with praise following that Australian Open triumph. The Belarusian kept fighting when her back was against the wall and proved to herself, and the rest of the world, how tough she really is.
She said: “I didn’t really see myself as a really tough person before last year happened.
“When I figured out the serve problems, I understood that I probably could get through whatever happens in my life.”
Sabalenka’s father Sergey passed away suddenly, at the age of 43, in November 2019, and she believes she gets her strength from him.
She added: “I think my father made me a really tough person without actually knowing that.
“The way he was trying to motivate me, the way he was trying to raise me, the things he was telling me, the things he was fighting through, he was a really tough person.
“He was a great example in some ways for me.”
Sabalenka, who begins her quest in Dubai against American lucky loser Lauren Davis on Tuesday, is very clear about her next big target: the No. 1 ranking.
“It’s my first priority, I would say; I really want it,” she said.
Iga Swiatek has a healthy 4,800-point lead on Sabalenka at the top of the rankings, but that mountain of a gap is one the Belarusian is determined to climb.
“She’s doing really well, she’s moving better than anybody else, she’s tough and it’s going to be really tough, and that’s why I really want to achieve it,” said Sabalenka of Swiatek, who arrives in Dubai fresh from a dominant title run in Doha.
“Because it seems, like, impossible, but I want to make it possible.”
Swiatek took over the top spot when Australian Ashleigh Barty announced her sudden retirement from tennis last March and vacated that position.
The 21-year-old Pole enjoyed a comfortable transition to the summit of the rankings, winning eight titles in 2022, including two majors.
Before hanging up her racquet, Barty had also brought her own unique brand of dominance to the tour, grabbing Grand Slams on three different surfaces while showcasing a style that confounded her opponents.
As a new major champion, Sabalenka is not looking to follow in anyone’s footsteps and hopes to carve her own path instead of trying to emulate someone else’s accomplishments.
“I just want to be me, you know,” she says.
Sabalenka admits she was “surprised” by the number of congratulatory messages she received from other players, and giggles when she’s told that several of her peers said they were inspired by what she has accomplished.
For her though, this is only the beginning and Sabalenka is more motivated than satisfied with that breakthrough victory.
In the Netflix series “Break Point,” Paula Badosa, who is Sabalenka’s closest friend on tour, said winning “is like a drug,” and Sabalenka agrees.
“It’s true, it’s exactly how it feels like,” Sabalenka said.
“When I was watching Paula’s episode, I was like, ‘Girl, that’s right.’ Because you’re winning and you want it more, especially those titles, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I want to feel that again.’
“I just want to keep improving and I just want to be an even tougher person, a tougher opponent.
“I just want to feel it again, feel again this feeling of winning a Grand Slam. It was really amazing.”
Sabalenka’s work with her biomechanics coach is far from over as she looks to make improvements in other aspects of her game.
She added: “I feel how powerful it is and I really want to keep working this way.”
The Miami resident makes her first on-court appearance since the Australian Open in Dubai, and says the message from her team is clear.
She said: “The message is that, ‘Yes, you’ve become a Grand Slam champion, that’s great, that’s really amazing and everyone is super happy, but it’s already gone. You have to keep working, you have to keep proving to yourself, to everyone, that you’re in the right place, and you have to keep working.’”
Asked what she hopes people can take from her journey so far, Sabalenka said: “Never stop believing in yourself, and understand that whatever happens in your life, whatever challenge you’re facing, you’ll see the reason why later.
“So, you have to understand that if you’re having a bad time, that something good is coming for you. You just have to get through it and it will come.”