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Aussie Open champ Sabalenka reworked serve, belief

- By Howard Fendrich

MELBOURNE, Australia — Aryna Sabalenka’s Australian Open championsh­ip is about persistenc­e.

It’s about the value of confrontin­g, not ignoring, problems.

It’s about putting in the time and the effort required to get better.

And, to hear Sabalenka and her team tell it, it’s as much about the way she reconfigur­ed her self-belief as it is about the way she reconfigur­ed her serving technique.

“I always had this weird feeling when people would come to me and ask for a signature. I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for (my) signature? I’m nobody. I’m a player. I don’t have a Grand Slam,’” Sabalenka said after that last phrase no longer applied because she had defeated Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the final Saturday night.

“I just changed how I feel. I start respect myself more,” Sabalenka continued, between celebrator­y sips of bubbly. “I start to understand that, actually, I’m here because I work so hard and I’m actually a good player.”

That goes a long way, especially when the going gets tough under the bright lights and on the big stage of a major tournament.

“Every time I had a tough moment on court,” the 24-year-old from Belarus said, “I was just reminding myself that I’m good enough to handle all this.”

There were plenty of those moments over the years — and against Rybakina,

who won Wimbledon last year and was the first woman in 22 years to beat three past Slam champions to get to the Australian Open final.

Then, there was the double-fault on the very first point, the doublefaul­t nearly 2 1/2 hours later on Sabalenka’s first of what would be four match points, the loss of the first set, and so on.

But Sabalenka’s retooled serve ended up producing 17 aces, more than enough to outweigh seven double-faults, and her 51 winners helped propel her to three pivotal breaks.

A year ago in Melbourne, Sabalenka double-faulted 15 times in a fourth-round exit. That set the tone for a season in which she led the tour with 400 double-faults, sometimes more than 20 in a match.

“She was kind of, like, afraid just to talk about it,” said her coach, Anton Dubrov.

He and Sabalenka’s fitness coach, Jason Stacy, kept trying to get her to reconstruc­t her serve. She resisted. Things got tough. Dubrov thought about quitting. But they all stuck with it. Sabalenka agreed to see a biomechani­cs expert who was part of the five-day project to change her serve about three weeks before the U.S. Open began last August.

She made the semifinals before losing to No. 1 Iga Swiatek, the eventual champion. That continued a pattern: Sabalenka was 0-3 in the final four at Grand Slam tournament­s until this week.

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