The vibe is loose – Sabalenka applauds and laughs as Jabeur knifes a drop shot winner and the crowd applauds. Another day in Tennis Paradise, and it suits Sabalenka perfectly. Playful prankster and part-time ham, the No. 2 seed at this year’s BNP Paribas Open doesn’t like to take life too seriously.
But get her on the match court? All we can say is run for cover.
A true tennis chameleon, the 24-year-old can take her intensity from zero to sixty – and beyond – in a heartbeat.
Less than two months after scaling the heights at the 2023 Australian Open, where she claimed her maiden major title, Sabalenka is dead set on expanding her empire as her fourth career appearance in the California desert looms.
“Really want to get this title,” she told a gathering of reporters on Wednesday, during her pre-tournament press conference at the BNP Paribas Open.
Compass pointed due north, Sabalenka’s first step will be taken on Friday at Indian Wells, when the second-seed meets Evgeniya Rodina in second-round action.
Motivation – or lack thereof – can sometimes be a spanner in the works for newly anointed Grand Slam champions. To experience the elation of a life-changing triumph has left many a Slam champion feeling unglued, adrift and not quite sure how to proceed.
Not the case with Sabalenka.
“I want to feel it again, it was so good,” she says of the emotions that rippled through her as she notched her crowning achievement in Rod Laver Arena in January.
For Sabalenka, there’s no doubt about what move to make next: she’s angling for the ultimate power play in 2023, and though she’s never been beyond the fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open, she is intent on making the Coachella Valley her next tennis proving ground.
Sabalenka has even talked of plans to overtake Iga Swiatek as the WTA’s No.1 player. Why not continue the surge in the Coachella Valley? It may sound far-fetched, given that the defending champ has opened up a nearly 4500 point gap over No. 2-ranked Sabalenka, but the 24-year-old has never been one to shy away from a daunting challenge.
“It’s going to be really tough and that’s why I really want to achieve it, because it seems like impossible but I want to make it possible,” she said of making a run for number one last month in Dubai.
Those may sound like the words of a confident athlete, but be warned, Sabalenka doesn’t quite see it that way.
“I don’t really like this word confidence,” she says. “I feel more belief in myself, but not more confidence – it sounds cocky.”
No matter what you call it, Aryna’s aura is strong – much like her jaw-dropping tennis.
No longer the WTA’s best player to have never won a Slam, Sabalenka is now beating a path to legend status. Once labeled an inconsistent underachiever with a serious serving deficiency, she has attacked her weaknesses with a vengeance, and built her mental fortress brick by brick.
After a season defined by hard knocks and sagging confidence, Sabalenka has solved the much-publicized serving woes that plagued her in 2022. She’s turned her weakness into a strength, and in 2023 she has emerged as the most effective server inside the WTA’s Top 100, in terms of service games held.
Far from fragile, as she was once perceived, Sabalenka has proven herself to be the consummate pro, but the work doesn’t stop now.
Sabalenka wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I don’t feel different, I feel like the same player – just with a Grand Slam title,” she said on Wednesday. “I still have to go on court, I still have to play my best tennis to win it. Nothing really changed – still working hard.”