Aryna Sabalenka, the No 2 seed at the Australian Open, seems to have found her mojo again, coming from a set and a break down to beat Storm Sanders, while Kaia Kanepi upset former AO champion Angelique Kerber and Tamara Zidansek and Ana Konjuh also won through to round 2 on Tuesday.
I just, I think it’s all about in here [pointing to her head]. I was thinking a lot on my serve. I tried to control everything and this is not how it works. I have muscle memory and I just have to trust myself and, yeah, that’s what I did in the middle of the second set. Aryna Sabalenka
Sabalenka’s start to the year had been disastrous as the World No 2 lost early at both Adelaide events, racking up an unprecedented 74 double-faults in her four matches.
While there were 12 more against Sanders, who held a point to take a 7-5, 4-1 double-break lead, the Belarusian wrested control in the nick of time on Rod Laver Arena, showing real fortitude to clean up her act and advance after 2 hour and 2 minutes.
Her serve again proved crucial, with 7 double-faults coming me in the first half of the match as she fell behind 7-5, 3-1.
Just when she had cleaned them up enough to level the set at 5-5 from a double break down, another 2 handed Sanders yet another break, and then 2 more paved the way to losing her serve in the 3rd game of the second set.
It all had a knock-on effect to the rest of her game as routine groundstrokes got sprayed outside the court resulting in 37 unforced errors in total.
Despite it all, Sabalenka found a way past the Aussie wild-card, eventually producing a breathtaking run of 9 consecutive games in which the 23-year-old harnessed her power to overwhelm Sanders and take a 4-0 lead in the decider.
Her remaining 5 double-faults were only intermittent, and replaced in the main by an ace tally that reached 7, the last 2 in an emphatic hold to finish off the win, 5-7 6-3 6-2.
“I just, I think it’s all about in here [pointing to her head], she said. “I was thinking a lot on my serve.
“I tried to control everything and this is not how it works. I have muscle memory and I just have to trust myself and, yeah, that’s what I did in the middle of the second set.”
Sabalenka credits Mark Philippoussis for helping fix her misfiring delivery.
“Well, after the first matches of the season I was really worried and I spoke with Philippoussis,” Sabalenka told reporters. “He was in Adelaide and after my second match he just wrote me saying ‘just stop thinking a lot on your serve’.
“He said ‘if you have some time we can go out on the court, I can help you’.
“I think at 9pm we went on court and we served a lot, and he gave me some tips about what should I focus on during the game.
“My coach was there. We had a nice conversation. I’m really thankful to him because that’s what helped me today.”
Next for Sabalenka is No 100-ranked Wang Xinyu of China, who defeated Ann Li of the United States, 7-6(5), 6-3 in 1 hour and 36 minutes.
The big-hitting 20-year-old was the 2018 girls’ doubles champion in Melbourne alongside Liang En-Shuo, and enjoyed a Top 100 breakthrough in 2021 after reaching the semi-finals in Prague and quarter-finals in Courmayeur and Linz.
Meanwhile, former World No 15 Kaia Kanepi, renowned as the slayer of seeds, came from a break down in the second set to take out 2016 champion and 16th seed Angelique Kerber, 6-4 6-3, in 1 hour and 20 minutes.
The 36-year old from Estonia, who is now ranked 115, has beaten a seed at a major for 9th time in her career, striking 31 winners to 21 unforced errors across the match.
Kerber, whose AO preparations were hampered after she tested positive for Covid-19, showed flashes of valiant defence, particularly in attempting to seize momentum in the second set, but the German former World No 1 lacked her usual sharpness on big points and committed 19 unforced errors to 18 winners.
Elsewhere, No 29 seed Tamara Zidansek and former World No 20 Ana Konjuh, who were born just a day apart, scored almost identical victories to reach the second round.
Zidansek needed a match tiebreak to get past Arantxa Rus from the Netherlands, 3-6 6-4 7-6 in 2 hours and 26 minutes, and takes on Britain’s Heather Watson next, while Konjuh squeezed past American Shelby Rogers, 4-6 6-3 7-5, in 2 hours and 18 minutes.
In both matches, the younger player came from a set down to take control, but made heavy weather of closing out the win.
Roland Garros semi-finalist Zidansek missed triple match point serving at 5-4 in the third set, and after leading 5-0 in the match tiebreak lost 7 of the next 8 points to trail 6-7, but the Slovenian found some of her best forehands to stay aggressive and convert her 4th match point.
Konjuh, a 2016 US Open quarter-finalist, could not take 4 match points serving at 5-4 in the decider but the Croat simply found another gear to rattle off the last 8 points and seal her first Grand Slam main draw win since Wimbledon 2017.
Elsewhere, 19-year-old Clara Tauson from Denmark enjoyed a winning AO main draw debut, defeating Aussie home hope Astra Sharma, 6-3 6-4, in 1 hour and 20 minutes; and 2019 semi-finalist Danielle Collins, the No 27 seed, triumphed 6-1 6-3 in an all-American derby against qualifier Caroline Dolehide in 66 minutes.
Collins will next face Konjuh, Tauson will take on No 6 seed Anett Kontaveit and Zidansek has a rematch against Watson, whom she defeated 2-6 6-2 7-6(4) in the first round of last week’s Adelaide 250.