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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Sunday January 29, 2023

Last year, Aryna Sabalenka had trouble believing that she was an exceptional athlete. Mired in a crisis of confidence, raining double-faults and low on self-esteem, she struggled to find her way through a season that characterized by chaos – both internal and external – more than victories.

Tennis Express

“I always had this weird feeling that when people would come to me and ask for a signature, I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for signature? I'm nobody. I'm a player. I don't have a Grand Slam and all this stuff,’” she explained on Saturday in Melbourne, after defeating Elena Rybakina in a thrilling battle for her maiden major title.

Sabalenka clearly had a lot of work to do to rebuild her confidence, which makes her triumph on Saturday in Melbourne Park all the more remarkable.

How did she do it?

She looked inside herself.

“I just changed how I feel. I started to respect myself more,” she said. “I started to understand that actually I'm here because I work so hard and I'm actually a good player.”

Sabalenka’s remarkable resurrection came from her own inner strength. She made the old cliché her friend: That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.

Once fragile, frenzied and flappable, Sabalenka has transformed herself. She turned around her mind – and her strokes – and has emerged in 2023 as one of the most mentally tough players on tour.

She says she owes it to the pain and frustration she experienced in 2022. It forced her to look hard in the mirror and learn how to believe. And that process led to Sabalenka’s crowning achievement, and made it even sweeter.

“I think it's even more enjoyable, I would say, after all those tough matches,” she told reporters after the final. “I really feel right now that I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me.

“I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and a different Aryna.”

Sunday’s final was a microcosm of her season – and her career – in many ways. There was the early doubts, the struggles on serve in the first set, and the recognition of the challenges that lie ahead. Then, there was the determination that drove her through the second set as her comeback began. Finally there was the butterfly taking flight, the soaring power set free, her booming game anchored by her buoyant spirit and burgeoning self belief.

In the third set she had truly taken flight. She ripped her groundstrokes with reckless abandon, the fury of her desire willing her to finally unleash every ounce of her power while still remaining calm and glacial in her mind. It was awe-inspiring.

The new Sabalenka is a force on many levels. And, for the first time, she knows it.

“Just having this understanding that I'm a good player,” she said of the changes that occurred in her over the last year. “I can handle a lot of emotions, a lot of things on court. Every time I had a tough moment on court, I was just reminding myself that I'm good enough to handle everything.”

She didn’t expect it to be easy, and it wasn’t. She was ready to go to battle, and did.

At 24, the future is bright, and if Sabalenka can live the lesson for the rest of her career, surely there will be more triumphs to come. Even if they don’t come easily.

“I kept telling myself: ‘Nobody tells you that it's going to be easy,’” she said. “You just have to work for it, work for it till the last point. I'm super happy that I was able to handle all those emotions and win this one.

“I am just super happy. Super happy. Proud,” she said. “I don't know how to explain. Just the best -- is the best day of my life right now.”