Sabalenka Struggles, Then Prevails as Top Women Fall at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia — Thursday was one other tough day for the main ladies at a serious tennis event. Garbiñe Muguruza, the No. Three seed, and Anett Kontaveit, the No. 6 seed, misplaced inside 5 minutes of one another of their second-round matches at the Australian Open after taking part in within the championship match of the WTA Finals in Mexico in November.

Thursday’s setbacks have been hardly shocking within the spinning roulette wheel that’s the ladies’s game, which is so unpredictable and deep in expertise that Emma Raducanu, as a little-known 19-year-old British qualifier, managed to win final 12 months’s U.S. Open title with out dropping a set in solely her second look in a Grand Slam event.

Raducanu was seeded 17th in Melbourne, and as if to show the purpose she made in New York once more, she was crushed within the second spherical on Thursday, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, by 98th-ranked Danka Kovinic.

The prospects weren’t wanting a lot better for second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka. She has extra cabinet-rattling energy than anybody within the ladies’s game, however she additionally has developed the yips on her second serve: a sudden incapability to depend on the muscle reminiscence that she had acquired all through a few years of pounding tennis balls and opponents into submission.

On Thursday, in a 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory towards 20-year-old Wang Xinyu of China, Sabalenka was not simply lacking second serves, she was lacking a few of them by 15 toes or extra as they landed nearer to the baseline than the service field.

In her opening service game alone, she made six double faults and completed the primary set with 12, dropping the set, 6-1. Some within the crowd started closing or masking their eyes as if to not intrude on her grief.

A double fault will get private. True, it counts no roughly than a groundstroke that lands lengthy, a misjudged volley that’s parried huge or a drop shot that lacks the steam to make it previous the web.

But the serve stays the one shot in tennis over which a participant has whole management, from the toss to contact, and when it goes off, or, worse but, utterly off, the psychology will get tough, significantly when the serve is the cornerstone of 1’s game. (See the strapping Sabalenka, who is sort of 6 toes and may rain down aces.)

“If you see me serving on the practice court, it’s perfect; it’s an amazing serve,” she stated this week.

“I just. I think it’s all about in here,” she stated, pointing to her head.

Double faults have been a recurring drawback for her regardless of her rise within the rankings, and there have been indicators of larger hassle in November at the WTA Finals close to Guadalajara, Mexico, the place she hit 19 double faults in a round-robin loss to Maria Sakkari.

But the low season clearly didn’t assist her resolve the difficulty, and he or she has been double-faulting at an unsettling clip since arriving in Australia. There have been two lead-in tournaments in Adelaide, and he or she misplaced within the first spherical of each to opponents ranked far beneath her: hitting 18 double faults towards Kaja Juvan and 21 towards Rebecca Peterson.

Mark Philippoussis, an imposing and big-serving Australian who misplaced to Roger Federer within the 2003 Wimbledon final, felt for Sabalenka and despatched her a textual content after her second defeat, providing to assist as quickly as he had completed his tv commentary duties.

They went on court docket that evening.

“We served a lot, and he gave me some tips about what I should focus on during the game when I’m like struggling with my serve,” she stated. “And my coach was there. They had a nice conversation. We had a nice conversation.”

In reality, Sabalenka stated they talked rather more than they served. “Maybe a few hours,” she stated in Melbourne. “But I was really worried going here about my serve, what was going to happen in the match. But I just tried to stay positive during this practice week.”

A flamable competitor even in higher instances, she stated she has additionally achieved her finest to remain constructive with the Australian Open underway. Her service issues will not be behind her, however she rallied to defeat Storm Sanders in three units within the opening spherical on Tuesday regardless of 12 double faults, most of which got here early.

“I was thinking a lot on my serve,” she stated. “I tried to control everything, and that’s not how it works. I have muscle memory, and I just have to trust myself, and that’s what I did in the middle of the second set.”

But the issue shortly resurfaced towards Wang, and he or she needed to pull off a better escape: 19 double faults is the equal of making a gift of almost 5 service video games.

“There’s just so much overthinking going on,” stated Roger Rasheed, a veteran Australian coach who has labored with Lleyton Hewitt, Grigor Dimitrov and Gaël Monfils. “She is technically fine, but the moment she misses her first serve, she is already in trouble as the mind is controlling her in a negative way.”

The Australian Open has definitely seen worse within the second spherical from a star. In 1999, Anna Kournikova, a 17-year-old Russian who was seeded No. 12, served 31 double faults towards Miho Saeki of Japan.

“I’m really frustrated about it, like everybody who’s watching,” Sabalenka stated. “When I practice, I have no problem, but when I come to the line, something happens. I’m just going to have to fight through it.”

She completed the match by placing a towel over her head in her chair — not the same old Kournikova strategy — however she had gained in three high-wire units.

Consider that foreshadowing for Sabalenka, who powered by her drawback to a level by hitting her second serves as arduous as she sometimes hits her first. She additionally tried to give attention to her strengths, not her weaknesses, and, in reality, performed some phenomenal, acrobatic offense and protection from the baseline as soon as the ball was in play.

“I’ve already had a lot of experience with playing without the serve, and I kept telling myself you have enough other shots to win the game even without the serve,” Sabalenka stated with a shrug.

But this doesn’t look like a sustainable strategy for successful her first Grand Slam singles title at this Australian Open. “It just puts unwanted pressure on the rest of her weapons: no room to breathe,” Rasheed stated.

Kournikova, in spite of everything, didn’t make it previous Round Four when she had the yips. Next up for Sabalenka: Marketa Vondrousova, a French Open finalist and Olympic silver medalist who’s seeded 31st this 12 months.

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