The No 5 seed, Aryna Sabalenka, took her tally of matches won Down Under to 8 in a row as she also notched up her maiden Australian Open quarter-final at the expense of Olympic champion Belinda Bencic on Monday, winning 7-5 6-2, where she will take on Donna Vekic, who defeated 17-year Linda Fruhvirtova in 3 sets.
I'm super happy that this thing with my serve happened to me. Before I wouldn't be really open for that. I would be like, 'You know what, my serve is fine, I don't want to change anything'. Actually, even when my serve was working, it wasn't really right. I was, in that moment, open for whatever. I was just like, 'Please, someone help me to fix this f***ing serve'. I'm sorry for swearing, but this is how it was. Aryna Sabalenka
Despite a slow start, the Belarusian was again mastered her composure under pressure as she produced an impressive performance against the Swiss, who is ranked 10 in the world.
Last year, Sabalenka fell to Kaia Kanepi at this stage after an emotional roller-coaster, and then suffered serving yips that set the rest of her season stuttering.
“It takes me a little while to understand that negative emotions are not going to help you on court, and you just have to stay strong, and believe, no matter what, and do everything you can to get back on this court, just to win the match,” Sabalenka said. “[I’m] just super happy with my mindset during the game today.”
Sabalenka and Bencic split the two Adelaide WTA 500 events in the lead-up, boosting both in confidence as they headed into week two here at Melbourne Park.
Sabalenka has not dropped a set in her opening 7 matches of the season, while Bencic has climbed back into the Top 10 for the first time since 2021 following her Adelaide success, and said she had to try to ‘block out the noise’ surrounding title chances this week as she reached the 4th-round for the first time in 7 years.
Like Sabalenka, the Swiss has long been in the fray as a Grand Slam title contender, but has all too often fallen short of those expectations, and now she has the Belarusian’s former coach Dimitry Tursunov in her corner.
Her best hope was to expose Sabalenka’s movement using variety, but she also found success when she took the ball on the rise as she aggressively hugged the baseline to take time away from her heavier-hitting opponent.
Sabalenka’s wayward serve has become a serious weapon and, from a 2-4 deficit, the 24-year-old gained a foothold in the match when she lifted her average first and second service speeds up a notch, and seized control from the baseline.
She reeled off 6 of the next 7 games and broke for the set when Bencic double-faulted.
The pressure was squarely back on the 12th seed and, as the Swiss battled to stem the flow, she reverted to adding more margin on her serves, but it was not enough to hold her own.
Sabalenka clocked a forehand winner into the corner to break for the 4th time at the 89-minute mark to book her spot in the Last 8.
While Bencic had success early by stepping in, this ploy ultimately favoured Sabalenka as she ended up winning 54 of 86 rallies under 5 shots.
“Definitely today I felt, like, I couldn’t handle her power,” Bencic admitted. “I think that was the biggest difference.
“But still, you know, I don’t feel like this is a really bad loss. Like, she’s, for sure, very in form right now and also playing very good.
“So I’m not, like, discouraged, I’m not, like, super devastated after this loss. I feel like I had a great start of the year.”
Sabalenka’s 32 winners were more than double those of the Swiss, and she was superior on serve, winning 78% of first-serve points and 64% on second serve to Bencic’s 63% and 48%, respectively.
Consulting a biomechanics expert has proven the key to fixing Sabalenka’s serving issues and she now sees it as a blessing in disguise.
“I’m super happy that this thing with my serve happened to me,” she said. “Before I wouldn’t be really open for that. I would be like, ‘You know what, my serve is fine, I don’t want to change anything’. Actually, even when my serve was working, it wasn’t really right.
“I was, in that moment, open for whatever. I was just like, ‘Please, someone help me to fix this f***ing serve. I’m sorry for swearing, but this is how it was.
“I want believe that the way I’m working right now, the way I’m on the court right now, this is the new beginning, and this is the next step.
“So I really want to believe that it’s going to really help me.”
The way she is playing makes her a big favourite to make the final from the bottom half, particularly following the exit of Garcia, the 4th seed, later in the day.
Next up for 5th seed Sabalenka will be a clash with unseeded Croatian Donna Vekic, who ended the run of 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova with a 6-2 1-6 6-3 victory after 2 hours and 7 minutes of play.
“I knew I had to, one, bring my best level, and two, try to stay with her even if things didn’t go my way at some point, which they didn’t,” Vekic said in her post-match press conference. “I knew I just had to fight until the end and believe that I can win.”
Vekic was also a former teenage prodigy, and made her debut here a decade ago, but this is only her second Grand Slam quarter-final, while the Czech teenager was bidding to become the youngest player to reach the quarter-finals here since Martina Hingis and Serena Williams in 1998.
The Croatian, though, reeled off the last 3 games of the match to advance to a major quarter-final for the first time since the 2019 US Open.
Vekic is on her own 7-match winning streak, having garnered 3 victories at United Cup ahead of the Australian Open.
At the tail end of a back-and-forth third set, Vekic slammed a backhand winner down the line to set up break point at 4-3, and Fruhvirtova double-faulted to cede her service.
Vekic then found some well-timed and powerful deliveries to successfully serve out the match.
Following the Australian Open 2021, the 26-year old had surgery on her right knee and, after her rehabilitation, she returned for Roland Garros the same year, but it has taken her way longer to get back to her best, the former World No 19 falling out of the Top 100 in the process.
Slowly, but surely, Vekic kept improving until she played in the finals in San Diego last October, having beaten Maria Sakkari, Pliskova, Sabalenka and Danielle Collins along the way, only to lose to Swiatek in 3 sets in the final.
“I feel that everything already clicked towards the end of last year,” she said. “I have played really well since the US Open – I did lose in the first round, but I played against Kudermetova.
“Every player’s goal is to win a Grand Slam title, but the difference now is that I truly believe that I can do it, for the first time in my life.”
As for Fruhvirtova, she told reporters: “Definitely was a very positive tournament for me.
“I was close today, so it sucks, of course, but I think I’m going to get some more chances here in the following years.”