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How exactly did Aryna Sabalenka figure out her serve?
In a long, painful—but ultimately successful—battle, her decisions to retain her coaches and become her own psychologist paid huge dividends.
Published Jan 30, 2023
PRESS CONFERENCE: Aryna Sabalenka, 2023 Australian Open champion
To be honest, I decided [during the pre-season] to stop working with a psychologist. I realized that nobody other than me will help, you know… Yeah, I'm not working with psychologist any more. I’m my psychologist. Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, following her semifinal win over Magda Linette
Okay, don’t take Sabalenka’s comment too literally. It clearly violates a sacred tenet of psychotherapy—Never be your own analyst. Yet her decision to take responsibility for fixing her game onto her own sturdy shoulders bore spectacular fruit as she finally cracked the Grand Slam code and won the Australian Open.
The accomplishment of the 24-year-old Belarusian is all the more impressive given how locker rooms are currently awash with sports psychologists. A year ago, you couldn’t have blamed them for designating Sabalenka’s problems insoluble. But, as her co-coach Jason Stacy put it in Melbourne, “she hit her fear and went through it, face on.”
Sabalenka has been swimming against the tide in another significant way. With the search for quick changes of fortune and magical cures turning coaching into a game of musical chairs, Sabalenka not only remained loyal to her coaches, she even refused to accept their resignations as she was floundering last year. More about that later.
The saga that unfolded in Melbourne became an inspirational tale of triumph over repeatedly crushed expectations, self-doubt, and even the fear of public humiliation. Sabalenka’s anxieties were compounded by the fact that she always stood out. At six-feet tall, she isn’t exactly a WTA outlier. But if you think of tennis as an L—as in “large”—sport, Sabalenka has an XL serve, XL forehand, XL athleticism, XL grunts and an XL personality. However, her confidence level has been, at best, an M.
She told reporters in Melbourne: “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.’”
In early 2022, that harsh assessment almost seemed justified. Sabalenka started off the year prey to that most dreaded virus, the serving yips. It was both acutely disappointing as well as promising when Sabalenka failed at the semifinal stage in the final two majors of 2021. But her hopes were devastated at the start of 2022, when she became so gun shy about her cannon of a serve that she could have hit a ball off a bridge over the Yarra River and missed the water.
Sabalenka hit 39 double faults in her first two matches, both losses, in Adelaide at the start of 2022. Although she won three matches in Melbourne, her serving woes were still painful to behold. At Doha some weeks after a quarterfinal round exit, co-coach Anton Dubrov approached her and, according to Sabalenka, said: “I don’t know what to do. I think you need to find someone else who’s going to help you.”
Sabalenka wouldn’t hear of it. She said last week, “I knew that it’s not about him. It’s just something about me. I just have to figure out the problem.”
Taking ownership of her fortunes—which isn’t always the go-to strategy for a struggling player—paid off handsomely. Her coaches worked their contacts and found an expert in biomechanics who agreed to help so long as Sabalenka was willing to undergo a comprehensive breakdown and analysis of her serve. Overcoming the yips, though, is especially tricky because there often is no easily identified, technical reason for them. During a bout of yips, which can come and go, players often panic, or retreat into denial.
“Last year when she faced that, she actually kind of lost the motion and everything, it’s like she was kind of afraid just to talk about it,” Dubrov told reporters in Melbourne.
But it got to the point where, Sabalenka said, “I was just like, ‘Please, someone help me to fix this (expletive) serve.’ I'm sorry for swearing, but this is how it was.”
I was just like, ‘Please, someone help me to fix this (expletive) serve.’ I'm sorry for swearing, but this is how it was. Aryna Sabalenka
Co-coach Jason Stacy shared Dubrov’s opinion that the best way to address the task was to demystify it—to empirically show why things were off kilter, and that they could be fixed. He said, “All we wanted at the end of this was to give her that understanding and that sense of control, so that way she wasn't out there with 50 different voices in her head and freaking out and all over the place.”
In Melbourne, Sabalenka said that in retrospect she was “super happy” that she endured the entire ordeal. Among other things, it left her with a new appreciation of a quality that has often eluded her, equanimity. Principally known before this year for emotional volatility that matched the explosive, often reckless nature of her game, she said she has turned over a new leaf.
“I lost those three [Grand Slam] semifinals just because I wasn't really calm on court,” Sabalenka said. “I was, like, overdoing things. I really wanted to get a Slam. I was rushing a lot. I was nervous a lot. Screaming, doing all this stuff. Right now I’m a little bit more calm on court. I think I really believe that this is the only thing that was missing in my game.”
That seems an accurate assessment of where Sabalenka stands at the moment, as well as an excellent example of why the nature of our problems and their solutions are sometimes best discovered by ourselves.