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A terrific Australian Open final indicated Iga Swiatek will soon have company at the top of the women’s game.
By winning her maiden grand slam title, Aryna Sabalenka will equal her career-high ranking of world number two, but she will still be more than 4,000 points behind Swiatek.
The Pole’s consistency, as well as her titles at the French Open and US Open, put her miles ahead of the rest in 2022, but she has a lot of points to defend this year and could find herself reeled in.
It was not so much that Sabalenka triumphed at Melbourne Park but the manner of her 4-6 6-3 6-4 victory over Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina that impressed so much.
This was a contest of huge hitting but also control, with Sabalenka amassing nearly twice as many winners as unforced errors and crashing down 17 aces, many at crucial moments.
The 24-year-old has long been known as a big talent but has elevated herself to a different level by maturing emotionally and learning to maintain a positive mindset.
Swiatek remains by some distance the best player on clay but, on faster surfaces, Sabalenka and Rybakina should have the edge.
While Sabalenka is another new women’s champion, she has certainly done her time, falling three times in grand slam semi-finals, and, having now made the breakthrough, she is hungry for more.
“First of all, it’s a little relief that I have a grand slam,” she said on wtatennis.com. “Second, it’s like a drug. I really want it again.
“It really motivates me a lot. I want even more and I want to become a better player. I know that there is still a lot of things to work on to be better on court.”
Sabalenka believes inner doubts were behind the emotional extremes she displayed on court, and it was confronting the biggest crisis of her career, last year’s serving yips, that allowed her finally to believe.
It’s like a drug. I really want it again. It really motivates me a lot.
“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for a signature, I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for a 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 a 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.”
Rybakina was unable to repeat her Wimbledon triumph but showed once again that she is both a supremely talented tennis player and also someone whose naturally calm demeanour makes her very well suited to the big stage.
At 23, the Kazakh also has time on her side and will belatedly make her top-10 debut on Monday – a position she would already have occupied had Wimbledon offered ranking points.
She hopes she can be a regular challenger at slams, saying: “Well, if it’s going to be like this, it’s great. For sure, that’s the goal, to be in the second week of all the grand slams, to play finals.
“Now I have more confidence, of course, even after this final. I just need to work hard, same as I did during pre-season and actually throughout the years, be healthy, and for sure the results are going to come.”
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