Aryna Sabalenka powers past Madison Keys to set up semi-final with Jabeur | Wimbledon 2023

new balance

Sometimes a rest is even better than a change. For Aryna Sabalenka, missing Wimbledon last year because of the ban on Russian and Belarusian players meant she had an opportunity to breathe, to reset. After reaching the semi-finals here in 2021, her career had been in danger of going off the rails, her serve collapsing, her mind imploding.

On Wednesday, having already won her first grand slam title this year at the Australian Open, the Belarusian overpowered Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4 to reach a grand slam semi-final for the fourth consecutive time.

“I was really sad that I couldn’t play here last year. But at the same time I was thinking: ‘OK, it’s a good time to kind of like reset and start everything over again,’” Sabalenka said after setting up a semi-final against Ons Jabeur, who gained revenge on Elena Rybakina for her defeat by the Kazakhstani player the final last year.

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“Before grass season [in 2022] I didn’t play my best tennis. I was struggling a lot with my serve, with these emotions, with a lot of stuff. I just took that time as a good preparation, as a good little switch. Everything started working better. I think in those probably three or four weeks, I did really good work, and it helped me at the US Open.

“Then I kind of started believing in myself more, I started playing better, I started feeling better on court, emotionally I started feeling better. I think this period gave me so much belief in myself. I was very sad but at same time I was like, OK, this is probably something I really needed.”

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Against Keys, Sabalenka began well, breaking serve in a six-minute opening game thanks to some thunderous hitting. Keys got on the board for to trail 2-1 but after being broken again for 4-1, the American consulted the doctor and took some tablets.

Sabalenka, the No 2 seed, wrapped up the set soon after but Keys, in her second quarter-final here, hit back well and when she broke serve and led 4-2, 40-0 in the second, it looked like she would take it to a decider.

Madison Keys stretches to return a shot during her quarter-final loss to Aryna Sabalenka
Madison Keys stretches to return a shot during her quarter-final loss to
Aryna Sabalenka.
Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

But Sabalenka found her groove again, winning 12 successive points to take control. A horrible volley over the baseline by Keys gave her another break for 5-4 and, though the American saved one match point, Sabalenka sealed the win with an unreturnable serve.

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“Obviously a very tough day,” Keys said. “I mean, I think Aryna played really well. I had chances in the second set and didn’t capitalise on them. Sometimes that’s how things go. Overall still a really good tournament for me.”

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Should Sabalenka beat Jabeur she will become world No 1 for the first time, fulfilling one of her lifelong dreams. The other one is to lift the Wimbledon title, something she has visualised since she was young.

“I remember myself, I don’t know, 14 or 15 years old going on my practice with the headphones listening to music and dreaming of becoming one of the best players in the world, dreaming about lifting this beautiful trophy,” she said. “That’s something that really motivates me a lot, that I was able to become one of the best. I’m competing on the high level. I’m going to do everything I can to lift this beautiful trophy.”

Perhaps the best thing Sabalenka has done in the past year is to calm her mind. Where once the tension was visible on her face after every missed shot, now, when things get tight and the pressure rises, more often than not she will smile. And even if she screams, it’s under control. Now it’s just about calming the thoughts of becoming No 1 or lifting the title.

“I want both but I’m trying to focus on myself because I know if I’ll start thinking about all this stuff I’m going to lose my focus on court, my game. So I’m trying to make sure that every time I’m on the court I bring my best tennis. Then later on we’ll see if I’m ready to become world No 1 or if I’m ready to play another final.”

new balance

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