A year ago, Aryna Sabalenka’s serve was in pieces and she was having to scrape through fraught battles in Australia as her fragile emotions were laid painfully bare.
Now she stands on the brink of a major breakthrough after finally reaching a Grand Slam final at the fourth attempt.
The 24-year-old Belarusian will face Elena Rybakina on Saturday in the final of the Australian Open knowing that she can now cope with the glare of the Rod Laver Arena floodlights.
Sabalenka has won all 10 matches she has contested this season and has not dropped a set, her power game overwhelming opponents and her glass-like fragility firmly in the past.
The shaky serve that haunted her so badly 12 months ago has been rock-solid, broken just six times in Melbourne.
The volte-face has been reward for a year of hard work with her coaches, a sports psychologist and a biomechanical specialist.
The confidence it has given Sabalenka has allowed her to find a zen-like peace, while losing none of her inner competitive tiger.
The combination means she can now dig herself out of any crisis, as she did when down 2-0 early to Magda Linette in the semi-finals, to extend her perfect 2023 run.
“I was trying to scream less after some bad points or some errors,” Sabalenka said. “I was just trying to hold myself, stay calm, just think about the next point.
“I’m still screaming ‘C’mon!’ and all that stuff, just less negative emotions.”
- ‘Stay in the game’ -
She has not had it all her own way at Melbourne Park, despite her flawless progress.
Sabalenka admitted she had to overcome “a lot of really tough moments” in her quarter-final against Donna Vekic, before battling through in 1hr 49min.
Sabalenka faced break points in all of her service games against unseeded Vekic, saving a remarkable 12 of the 14 she faced.
“I just kept saying: ‘Just stay in the game, fight for it, don’t give her easy points, make her work for it.’”
Sabalenka feels so in control that she has dispensed with her sports psychologist.
“To be honest, I decided to stop working with a psychologist. I realised that nobody other than me will help, you know?” she explained to reporters.
“I feel like I have to deal with that by myself because every time hoping that someone will fix my problem, it’s not fixing my problem.
“I’m my own psychologist,” she laughed.
Asked how she would prepare now for the new challenge of a maiden Grand Slam final, Sabalenka said she would not change anything, even if the nerves return.
“I’m not going to do something extra. I think that’s OK to feel a little bit nervous,” she said.
“It’s a big tournament, big final. If you’re going to start trying to do something about that, it’s going to become bigger, you know?
“I’ll just leave it like that. It’s OK to feel nervous.”