MELBOURNE: Aryna Sabalenka won a second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open on Saturday by marrying her undoubted tennis prowess with a more relaxed mentality and the discipline to stick with her strategy.
Following her breakthrough at Melbourne Park last year to clinch a first major, the powerful 25-year-old Belarusian again demonstrated she has what it takes to come out on top, beating Chinese 12th seed Zheng Qinwen 6-3, 6-2.
The emphatic win on a cool Melbourne evening removed her fear of being a one-hit wonder - a fate that has befallen many of her contemporaries since the dominant era of Serena Williams.
In doing so, she became the first female player to mount a successful title defence at Melbourne Park since compatriot Victoria Azarenka in 2013.
"I think my mindset is that I'm not getting crazy on court, I'm not rushing things," said the world number two, who now has 14 titles under her belt.
"You know, I'm just playing point by point, and that's it, and fighting for every point without over-thinking about my dreams, about what I want to do, about how many Slams I want to win and all that stuff.
"I was able to separate myself from that kind of mentality and just start focusing on myself and focusing on things I can improve and I can get better in, and what I actually have to do to win every match I play."
Her breakthrough in Melbourne last season, which she followed up by making the semi-finals in Paris and at Wimbledon before reaching the final of the US Open, is in stark contrast to her performance two years ago.
At the 2022 Australian Open, Sabalenka's serve was in pieces and she was having to scrape through fraught battles as her fragile emotions were laid painfully bare.
The dramatic change has been a reward for hard work with her coaches and a sports psychologist, which has given her a zen-like peace while she has lost none of her fierce competitive instincts.
"A big part is just seeing how, regardless of how she's feeling or what's happening, she's having more and more discipline to stick with what the plan is, the strategy," her physical trainer Jason Stacy said ahead of the final.
"She's trusting herself and understanding what she's doing a bit better.
"I think seeing that, no matter how the match is going, how she might be feeling or what she's thinking, she's just having the discipline just to be grounded where she is in the moment and just do the next step."
The belief in that strategy allows Sabalenka to dig herself out of sticky situations, not that she faced many over the past two weeks during a dominant run to the title.
Wearing a striking red dress on the blue courts, she did not drop a single set and was only once taken to tie-break, by US Open champion Coco Gauff in the semi-finals.
Sabalenka has attributed her consistency over the past year to being "more mature, older, whatever you want to call it".
The Belarusian, who has been locked in a battle with Iga Swiatek for the world number one slot, feels so in control now that she has dispensed with her sports psychologist.
"When you're working with a psychologist at some point it's really helping, especially for young players," she said.
"But then at some point you start kind of expecting somebody to help you. You know, you're not fixing your problems by yourself.
"I just decided at some point I need to figure out by myself how to start to control myself better.
"And I think that decision was the biggest decision for me and I started actually taking responsibility for everything I'm doing, and it's really helped me to become more controlled on court."