Aryna Sabalenka Is a Smash Hit

By Giri Nathan

The most infamous racquet smash of the 2023 US Open happened off court. After Aryna Sabalenka lost her women’s singles final to Coco Gauff, 3–6, 6–3, 6–2, she walked into the locker room and plopped down her tennis bag. Atop the bag, she placed the runner-up plate she’d just been awarded at the trophy ceremony. Then she unzipped the bag, pulled out a racquet, calmly considered it, obliterated it with four strikes against the ground, and walked across the room to toss it into a garbage bin. It clanged against the metal.

Maybe I am bad, because one of my first reactions was marvel at the physical comedy on display in this clip, comic timing nearly as precise as her tennis timing. Other, more dignified people, like Andy Murray’s mom, argued that this was a moment of private catharsis that should have never been leaked to the public.

That felt a bit strong to me. This particular room had been part of public broadcasts all week, did Aryna have an expectation of privacy here? A slightly different angle of the same scene revealed that a Netflix camera crew was hovering just a few feet away—okay, definitely no expectation of privacy. Some even speculated that Sabalenka, who has never been much of a racquet smasher on court, staged the thing to juice up that docuseries. I wouldn’t go that far, but I no longer feel too guilty about having a chuckle at it. Later, she posed for a photograph with a fan. Aryna was holding her plate, and the fan was holding two trophies of her own: two smashed racquets, which had apparently been fished out of the trash by her team.

How it started. Sabalenka poses with her new BFF in Melbourne. (Getty)

There was triumph mingling with that disappointment, because Sabalenka was guaranteed to become the new world No. 1 this week, win or lose, unseating Iga Swiatek after her 75-week reign. Sabalenka, not Swiatek, has wrapped up the year’s major tournaments with the most impressive résumé: win in Melbourne, semifinal in Paris, semifinal in London, final in New York. She seemed to have conquered the jitters and hiccups that plagued her previous second-week runs at Slams. In their semifinal, Madison Keys served for the match up 6–0, 5–4. Sabalenka, who’s been on the receiving end of some memorable comebacks, constructed one of her own in this duel of heavy hitters.

During the final, though, Coco Gauff’s defense was a problem that Sabalenka couldn’t solve. She attributed her loss not just to Gauff’s play but to her own internal conflict. “The second set I start probably overthinking, and because of that I start kind of like losing my power. Then she start moving better. I start missing a lot of easy shots,” she said of her 46-error performance. “I mean, the good news is that it’s me against me. The bad one is that I’m still having these issues playing against myself,” she said, smiling. While total self-possession must be nice, internal conflict makes for far better TV. Her first act as the world No. 1 was totally transfixing. I suspect we will all really enjoy her reign at the top.

Above: Meet your new No. 1. Aryna Sabalenka during the US Open final. (Getty)