Sabalenka reaping rewards of mentality shift after easing into Australian Open quarters

Belarusian fifth seed extends her unbeaten start to the season to continue her bid for a first Grand Slam title

Aryna Sabalenka celebrates her win against Belinda Bencic in the fourth round of the Australian Open. EPA
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Aryna Sabalenka said a change in mentality to block out "negative emotion" has been key to her strong start to the season after the Belarusian fifth seed eased into the Australian Open quarter-finals on Monday.

Sabalenka has long been viewed as a major-champion-in-waiting but three semi-final appearances – at the last two US Opens and Wimbledon in 2021 – have been her best showings to date, with untimely dips in form and focus often blamed for her lack of Grand Slam success so far.

However, the 7-5, 6-2 victory over Swiss 12th seed Belinda Bencic in the fourth round at Melbourne Park showed no signs of the nerves that have afflicted the talented Belarusian's game in the past.

The 1hr 27min demolition on Rod Laver Arena set up a clash against Donna Vekic in the last eight after the unseeded Croatian ended the dream run of 17-year-old Czech Linda Fruhvirtova 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.

Sabalenka dropped her serve early in the first set, something that might have precipitated a loss of confidence or even a bout of the serving "yips" in the past. But the 24-year-old demonstrated her new-found mental steel, and rapier serve, to stay patient before breaking back and taking the match by the scruff of the neck.

"My whole life it took me a little while to understand that negative emotion is not gonna help you on court," said Sabalenka, who won the Adelaide International title in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

"You have to just stay strong and believe no matter what, and then do everything you can. So just super happy with the mindset during the game today. I did a wonderful job."

With the early exits of top seed Iga Swiatek and world No 2 Ons Jabeur, Sabalenka is among the favourites to win the first Grand Slam of the season, but she would not divulge, when asked, if her new confidence meant she had set herself a goal of winning a maiden major this year.

"I don't want to talk about that," she said. "I think we all have the same targets, like every player. I would say that I'm trying to be really professional on the court, do everything I can every match ― no easy wins for my opponents. That's the main thing."

Sabalenka's title hopes were further boosted by the shock defeat of fourth seed Caroline Garcia in the subsequent match inside Rod Laver Arena.

France's Garcia looked set to continue the late-career renaissance which saw her reach the semi-finals of the US Open and win the WTA Finals last year when she took a 3-0 lead in the first set against Magda Linette.

It all went downhill from there, though, as Linette played inspired tennis to fight her way back and win the match 7-6, 6-4. The Polish world No 45 will face Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals after the former world No 1 dominated China's Shuai Zhang 6-0, 6-4.

"I don't know what happened. I'm speechless really, I don’t know what to say," said Linette after Garcia sent one final forehand long to hand her a place in her first Grand Slam quarter-final.

Updated: January 23, 2023, 7:54 AM
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