Aryna Sabalenka outgunned Donna Vekic, 6-3 6-2, in a quarter-final, heavyweight bout between the two-hitters on Rod Laver Arena, on Wednesday, to surge into the semi-finals for the first time at the Australian Open.
I don't like this word 'confidence'. For me sounds like to be cocky, you know? I just feel like I have more believe in myself. I feel like this is the huge difference. Aryna Sabalenka
The Belarusian is the highest seed left standing, at No 5, and therefore the favourite for the AO title, if she can keep herself as disciplined and focused as she has been since the start of the year.
Her new doctrine has its foundations in a newly-crafted serve, and a patient and more positive attitude, all of which have been paying dividends since she now has won all 9 matches she has played this year, and has dropped only 26 games in 10 sets in Melbourne.
The 24-year-old finished last season with a whopping 428 double-faults, 139 more than the next worst offender, and it was a statistic she hopes she will never repeat again.
“I want to 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,” Sabalenka said. “So, I really want to believe that it’s going to really help me.”
Ahead of her 4th-round clash with Swiss Belinda Bencic, Sabalenka offered a glimpse into her more mature game plan this year that had, in turn, contributed to her eye-watering flow of winners.
“I think it’s about first few shots,” she said. “I feel like I have to stay really aggressive in the first few shots, and then the easy, like, slower ball or shorter ball will come.
“So I think it’s all about fast feet on the first few shots. I have to be like really a tiger, like ready, stay low and ready for that.”
“I feel like I have to stay really aggressive in the first few shots, and then the easy, like, slower ball or shorter ball will come.”
In fact, no other player in the second week of this year’s Australian Open has clocked anywhere close to her staggering tournament-high tally of winners as a percentage of total points won – a strike rate of 47.52%, which translates into 163 of the 343 points Sabalenka has won so far at Melbourne Park.
Vekic had held a 5-1 career record against the Belarusian, but was unable to match the level of the new, improved version of the 5th seed, with 13 double-faults not helping the Croatian’s cause.
Sabalenka notched up 38 winners from 81 total points she won, which is a success rate of 46.91%, but the 24-year-old refuses to get too far ahead of herself, despite booking her maiden AO semi-final berth.
“I don’t like this word ‘confidence’,” she said. “For me sounds like to be cocky, you know? I just feel like I have more believe in myself. I feel like this is the huge difference.”
The match was closer than the score suggests, and the 24-year-old took her chances in a physical one-hour first set littered with break points, before running away with the second.
Sabalenka has yet to drop a set in Melbourne, which is a far cry from a year ago, when she struggled badly with her serve and was reduced to tears at an AO warm-up tournament.
“It feels really special to be in the semi-finals here, it was a tough match,” said Sabalenka, who was competing in her first AO quarter-final. “I’m super happy with the win, and it was so great to play here today, the atmosphere was unbelievable.”
Vekic double-faulted twice in each of her first 2 service games to set Sabalenka up with a 3-1 lead.
The Croatian saved a break point in her first service game and, after failing to win any of the 3 break points she had against Sabalenka’s serve at 1-1, she dropped serve to love in the next game.
“My serve is one of my biggest weapons, so if that’s not working, it’s very tough out there, especially against her, who is not giving you any easy points, easy shots,” Vekic said. “I think that’s why maybe also I felt a little bit more pressure, because I knew if I didn’t have a great serve, that she’s going to crush it.
“That could be one of the reasons, as well. I mean, with her, you cannot really count on building the point, staying in the rallies, working your way up. If you don’t have good first shot, you’re in trouble.”
The two faced at least one break point in 8 of the 9 games of the first set.
Vekic broke back in the 5th game, and held serve for 3-3 after saving 2 break points but, after Sabalenka denied the Croatian 3 chances for a 4-3 lead, the Belarusian broke for a 2nd time and served out the set after, once again, erasing a break point.
Having saved 12 of the 14 break points she faced in the match in all, Sabalenka converted 5 of the 13 she had on the Vekic serve.
It is Sabalenka’s 4th career Grand Slam semi-final overall, and she is looking her first major singles final when she takes on unseeded Magda Linette from Poland, who upset 30th-seeded Karolina Pliskova from the Czech Republic earlier in the day, continuing to fly the Polish flag after the shock exit of World No 1 Iga Swiatek.
“It’s a dream come true,” Linette said. “I’m super grateful and happy. Thank you for cheering and supporting, I really needed this.
“So we keep going. I don’t want to get too excited because we are still in the tournament,” added the Pole, who will break into the Top 30 for the first time.
Two-time Melbourne champion Victoria Azarenka, Sabalenka’s compatriot from Belarus, will face Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina from Kazakstan in the other semi-final on Thursday.