SPO_220118 SABALENKA-1642525392555
Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka reacts during her first round match against Australia's Storm Sanders. Image Credit: Reuters

Melbourne: World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka revealed on Tuesday that Mark Philippoussis helped iron out her early season serving horrors as she recovered from a set down to make the Australian Open second round.

The second seed from Belarus came into the season-opening Grand Slam low on confidence after self-destructing at two warm-up tournaments where her serve left her distraught.

It got so bad against world No 93 Rebecca Peterson in Adelaide that Sabalenka was reduced to sending deliveries underarm, at one point breaking down in tears. Across two defeats, she threw down 39 double faults.

She reduced the count to 12 against Storm Sanders on Rod Laver Arena to win 5-7, 6-3, 6-2, but with four in her first two service games it appeared she was in for another miserable night.

Sabalenka, 23, kept her cool though and finally found her range to stay in the match and the tournament, with former world No 8 Philippoussis to thank.

“After the first matches of the season I was really worried and I spoke with Mark Philippoussis,” she said of the Australian, who reached the finals of the 1998 US Open and Wimbledon in 2003.

“He was in Adelaide [commentating] and after my second match he just wrote me, like, ‘Well, girl, just stop thinking a lot on your serve’.

“He said: ‘If you have some time today… I can help you.’

“And, yeah, I think at 9pm or 8pm we went on court and we served a lot and he gave me some tips about what should I focus on during the game when I’m struggling with my serve.

“I’m really thankful to him for this help because that’s what helped me today on match to just survive there.”

SPO_220118 RADUCANU-1642525394373
Britain's Emma Raducanu celebrates after winning her match against Sloane Stephens of the US. Image Credit: Reuters

Raducanu clears a big hurdle

Britain’s teenage sensation Emma Raducanu cleared a dangerous first-round hurdle, seeing off experienced American Sloane Stephens 6-0, 2-6, 6-1 in a topsy-turvy contest.

Raducanu, who rocketed to fame in September with a fairytale run to the US Open title as a qualifier without dropping a set in what was only her fourth senior tournament, raced through the opening set in 17 minutes, leaking only four points.

But former world No 3 and 2017 US Open champion Stephens finally found her rhythm and range to take charge of the second set from 2-2, reeling off four games as errors began creeping in to 17th seed Raducanu’s game.

It looked ominous at that point for the 19-year-old Raducanu whose build-up to her Australian Open debut had hardly been ideal, having had COVID-19 and suffering a heavy defeat in her opening match in Sydney.

But she showed the same coolness under pressure that swept her to the title in New York, settling down and finding another gear to dominate the decider with some precision baseline hitting as Stephens unravelled again.

Stephens avoided another rout as she held serve at 0-5 but there were no more twists on a sparsely populated Margaret Court as Raducanu closed out the win on serve despite a sixth double-fault on her first match point.

It was an encouraging start for Raducanu despite the second-set wobble and she will be heavily fancied to get past 99th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in the second round.

“It was a tough match-up for a first round, her athleticism is right up there, so I’m just happy to get through,” Raducanu, who was under the eye of new coach Torben Beltz, said on court.

“In the first set I played some great tennis with very few errors. Of course, there was going to be some adversity and I was happy to regroup in the third set.

“I don’t think the score reflected the match really as I was really feeling it.”

When Raducanu belted away a forehand winner on the opening point of the match and pocketed the first set without breaking sweat it seemed she had just carried on from where she left off when beating Leylah Fernandez at Flushing Meadows.