Sabalenka: I'm ready to be No.1

 - Chris Oddo

Relentless focus has helped the world No.2 to the cusp of her dream

Aryna Sabalenka, media day, Roland-Garros 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Already basking in the glow of her greatest achievement as a professional earlier this year, newly-minted Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka didn’t spend much time resting on her laurels. She immediately declared her new mission: to hunt down the No.1 ranking.

You want to do what? 

With Iga Swiatek guarding a yawning gap between herself and the rest of the field, the goal seemed a little far-fetched.

Even Sabalenka seemed to have doubts. 

“It’s going to be really tough and that’s why I really want to achieve it (No.1 ranking), because it seems like it’s impossible but I want to make it possible,” she said in February

Several months later, Sabalenka has already backed up her words with authority. She heads into the Parisian fortnight on the heels of her second Madrid title and first win over reigning world No.1 Swiatek on clay. 


'I improved a lot'

Sabalenka, who was a whopping 6,685 points behind Swiatek heading into the Australian Open, has mounted a charge and closed the gap to 1,399 points, which means she is in position to overtake the Pole in this week’s rankings if the dominoes fall in her favour. 

If Swiatek fails to reach the quarter-finals in Paris, Sabalenka will automatically overtake her. If Sabalenka reaches the semi-finals, then Swiatek would need to reach the final to have a chance of staying at No.1; if Sabalenka reaches the final, Swiatek could hold on to No.1 only by winning the title.

With that news percolating in the media room, Sabalenka was asked if she felt ready to be No.1.

“I think yes,” she said, before adding: “I think I improved a lot, and I have everything to be No. 1.” 

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland-Garros 2023, practice© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

That proclamation comes with a caveat. Sabalenka uses the quest for No.1 as motivation, but makes it clear that she isn’t obsessed with it. For her, it’s a psychological tool that helps her bring out the best in her game. 

“When you have a target, if you have really big motivation, it's not easier, but you have a goal behind all those tough practices,” she explained a few weeks ago in Rome. “It's easier to keep going. When it's tough, you remind yourself why you're doing it.

Rather than fixate on the dream, the 25-year-old is all about dialing in her clay-court game so that she can continue her fantastic season in a venue that has proven challenging over the course of her career. 

“I don't want to focus on (the No.1 ranking),” she said. “I just want to focus on my game, and I just want to bring my best game every time on the court.” 

Aryna Sabalenka / Roland-Garros 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Clay game ready to blossom 

Sabalenka has yet to reach the second week at Roland-Garros and it’s something she badly wants to change. 

“It's an extra motivation for me to do better,” she said on Friday, referring to her last three losses at Porte d'Auteuil, which all came in the third round and in a deciding third set.

Never mind the past. In 2023 Sabalenka believes she is better than ever on the surface for myriad reasons. 

“I think physically I'm stronger, so I'm able to move better on clay and I'm not rushing things and I'm calm on court,” said the Miami-based player. “A lot of things I improved, I would say since last year, so that's why it makes me better player on clay."

Sabalenka, who is 7-5 overall at Roland-Garros, will face Ukraine's Marta Kostyuk in the first round. She hopes that it will be a springboard to a career-best performance and - perhaps - the realisation of a long-term ranking goal.

“Last years weren't really good for me here at Roland-Garros – I'm gonna do everything I can to improve it,” she stated.

Aryna Sabalenka, entraînements, Roland-Garros 2023 ©Philippe Montigny / FFT