AO 23 Australian Open

The Woman In The Aryna

Just hit the ball.

It sounds so simple, so elemental, so pure.

Just take a racquet and blast that little yellow sphere.

Nothing complicated about it, right?

Well, what happens when your opponent, a Wimbledon champion, keeps spitting balls back? What happens when the tension of an occasion which is both massive and new — a first-time major singles final — arrives in full force? What happens when, after slugging the ball for more than two hours, it becomes necessary to save break point when trying to serve out a match and a first major championship? What then?

Tennis demands the ability to block out the voices in the head, quiet the external pressure from the crowd, shove aside the presence of a worthy opponent, and hit the ball in spite of the swirling emotions and racing pulse an athlete feels in the middle of full-tilt, all-out competition.

Tennis demands the ability to stand in the arena and do something calmly even when nothing about the situation is conducive to calmness.

The newest major champion in women’s tennis was able to stand in the arena and perform.

Aryna is her name. Sabalenka raised her game.

She didn’t figure it all out right away. This was a natural, organic process of several years, learning how to win, learning how to harness all that ballstriking talent and explosive power. Doing it better, doing it with improved defense, doing it with more control, doing it with enough margin to limit mistakes, doing it in major semifinals and finals, doing it in crunch-time situations.

We could see Sabalenka’s growth in 2022, when she battled Iga Swiatek deep into the U.S. Open semifinals before falling short. She wasn’t all the way there, but she was certainly getting closer.

At the 2023 Australian Open, Sabalenka took the final step — on a broader level, by winning her first major title, and on a more specific level, by winning a supremely tense final game which was a microcosm of the journey she has made in the sport.

Incrementally, in stages — not suddenly, not overnight — Aryna Sabalenka put all the pieces of her game together. What we saw in the women’s final was a very big hitter minimizing her mistakes, a clear sign that she had been able to improve her powers of concentration, which is a power more valuable than the power of her hitting.

Sabalenka, expressive as ever, was taking lots of very deep breaths late in the first set, gathering herself in a very visible way and making sure each point was played with maximum purposea and intent. After failing to win her first few championship points — she would need four to finally close out Elena Rybakina — she half-smiled, as though acknowledging that “Yes, this is supposed to be hard.”

There was an awareness of the difficulty of the moment, but not in a way which proved to be suffocating or oppressive. It was the attitude of a player who was very clear-eyed about herself, her circumstances, and the task at hand. Such is the growth and maturity we have seen in Aryna Sabalenka in recent years, culminating with this magnificent performance in a moment of supreme consequence.

She stood in the center of the storm and handled everything about it.

Sabalenka is the woman in the Aryna, standing tall as the major champion who patiently learned how to put all the pieces of her game together.

It is supposed to be hard. That’s what makes these championship moments so satisfying to watch for the public, and a trillion times more meaningful for the athletes themselves who forge these achievements.

Aryna Sabalenka could not have earned this title any more fully than she did in Melbourne.

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