World number two Aryna Sabalenka revealed yesterday 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 number 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 number eight 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 9:00pm or 8:00pm 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.”
Top-10 seeds Garbine Muguruza, Iga Swiatek and Anett Kontaveit all made comfortable starts to their Melbourne title charges, while Simona Halep also won despite struggling with her serves.
But there was defeat at the first hurdle for the 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez. Canada’s Fernandez, the 23rd seed, went down 6-4, 6-2 to Australian wildcard Maddison Inglis, to the delight of the home crowd.
Fernandez, seeded 23, was at a loss to explain her poor performance but said the only thing she could do would be to get back on the practice court as soon as possible.
“Today was just not a good day, too many mistakes,” said Fernandez, whose stunning exploits in New York where she knocked out defending champion Naomi Osaka and world number two Aryna Sabalenka had earmarked her as a star of the future.
“We had a good pre-season, we worked hard, we improved my tennis game,” she added after her return to Grand Slam action turned sour.
“Just leading up to these tournaments, I was just extremely happy with how I was progressing and how I was practising.”
Fernandez said she was determined to look forward despite her disappointment.
“I can’t go back in time,” she said.
“The only thing I can do right now is get back on the tennis court and put in the hours, work hard and just improve in every aspect.”
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