By Giri Nathan
This time last year, Aryna Sabalenka was No. 2 in the world, stumbling through three-setters in Australia, her serve a darkly comic catastrophe. Warming up for the Open, in Adelaide, she served 21 double faults in a loss to world No. 93 Rebecca Peterson, in which she was forced to serve underarm. At one point, weeping into her towel, she was questioned by umpire Julie Kjendlie. “Nothing is wrong. It’s a technical problem. I cannot serve better,” replied Sabalenka. Hers was about as profound a case of the yips as you will ever find in tennis.
It dogged her at the main event, too. After her third-round victory at the Australian Open, she was relieved. “I’m really happy right now and mostly I’m happy that I made only 10 double faults,” she joked. That was her best mark of the tournament. She had racked up 12 in the first round, 19 in the second, and would proceed to hit 15 in her fourth-round loss to Kaia Kanepi. These are completely unreal, unworkable numbers. By the end of the season, she had tallied 428 double faults in 55 matches, nearly eight per match. That was over 139 more than the second-highest total on tour, which belonged to Ekaterina Alexandrova. At the year-end finals, Sabalenka admitted it was a “miracle” to be there at all, because she’d been the “queen of double faults” all season.
Anything this broken needs careful fixing. Last summer Sabalenka worked with a biomechanics specialist, a process she elaborated on this week at the Australian Open, grateful to have gotten through the dysfunction. “I’m super happy that this thing with my serve happened to me before. Because before, I wouldn’t be really open to that. ‘My serve is fine, I don’t want to change anything.’ But actually, even when my serve was working, it wasn’t right,” she said. “And I’m super happy that it’s happened to me, and that moment I was open for whatever. I was just like, ‘Please, someone help me to fix this fucking serve.’ I’m sorry for swearing, but this is how it was. This is the true feeling.” The specialist reviewed videos of her serve, identified flaws in her technique, and taught her to expend less energy while smoothing out the stroke.
And look at that: Aryna Sabalenka is a dominant server all over again. When she steps up to the hashmark, she now instills terror in her opponent. She no longer instills terror in me, who once trembled to imagine what exotic path that second serve will take toward the bottom of the net. She has not dropped a set at the Australian Open, partially on the strength of her powerful deliveries, and the double-fault count, through six rounds, stands at a reasonable 22, exceeded by her 29 aces. Correction of this glaring flaw has given her a complete offensive tool kit. It’s the finest baseline bashing to be found anywhere in the present WTA.
We have seen so many Sabalenkas past look fearsome but ultimately unreliable. Three times she’d made major semifinals, and three times she’d lost 6–4 in the third set. But this time she beat Magda Linette—an unusual foe this deep into the tournament—in straight sets, earning a spot in her first major final. Curiously, she’ll have to contend with an even more dominant server, Elena Rybakina, with an opposite disposition. Take a shot for every ace, you say? I don’t want your death on my conscience. Stick with water.
Above: Tiger Style. (Getty)