Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka has shown a softer side as she prepares for her Australian Open title defence. Image by Darren England/AAP PHOTOS
  • tennis

Sabalenka opens up ahead of maiden major title defence

Murray Wenzel January 13, 2024

Aryna Sabalenka doesn’t feel any different ahead of her first major title defence, although she hopes the Australian Open crowds have got to know her a little better.

The Belarusian broke through for a maiden grand slam title at Melbourne Park last year, prevailing in a titanic three-setter against Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina.

The 25-year-old has reached the semi-finals of the last five majors – the first since Serena Williams in 2016 to reach all four in a calendar year – and briefly held the No.1 ranking last year.

Her charisma was on show during last week’s charity appearance with Novak Djokovic, while she jokingly blamed her coaching staff after a comprehensive loss to Rybakina in the Brisbane International final last Sunday.

The current world No.2 also showed her softer side in an emotional cameo in the recently released second season of Netflix documentary Break Point, detailing her desire to win a major for her father, who died suddenly in 2019 aged just 43.

The previous season had honed in on her form struggles, particularly her wobbly serve, that she eventually overcame.

“When I was talking about my family and just my story, every time I was about to cry because it’s not an easy topic for me,” she said ahead of Sunday’s first-round clash with Germany’s Ella Seidel.

“I’m happy that everyone who watched it, they know my story.

“It was a great time for Netflix to join my team and film it and show people that we are also struggling a lot, that there is not only amazing moments, and we are not only having fun, there is something we are working on and we are struggling with.

“It’s always up and downs.

“I’m (an) open person. For me, it’s not that hard to speak about my life and just tell my story. 

“I hope that people feel closer to me right now and they understand myself better.”

She said there had been no special treatment since returning to Melbourne.

“Nothing actually … it’s always special here,” she said. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re defending champion or you’re a seeded player or you’re an unseeded player, Australia always treats you special.”

Sabalenka had won 15 straight matches in Australia before world No.3 Rybakina thumped her 6-0 6-3 in Brisbane.

“Elena just played incredible tennis. She just crushed it. I tried to do my best, and I’m just thankful for those three games,” Sabalenka said.

“Before the finals, I think I played really great tennis. 

“After the finals was another week to work on those mistakes and just prepare myself as good as I can for Melbourne.”