NEW YORK—Aryna Sabalenka knows it’s going to be hard to get over the sting of a loss to Coco Gauff in the US Open final.
That’s why, right after Gauff’s 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory, Sabalenka was reminding herself that when she wakes up Monday morning, she will be No. 1 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings for the first time.
“That’s why probably I’m not super depressed right now. I’m definitely going to be,” Sabalenka said. “I’m definitely going for a drink tonight — if I’m allowed to say that.”
Sabalenka learned in 2023 to handle the nerves and negative thoughts that sometimes plagued her in the biggest tournaments earlier in her career, showing how far she had come by rallying from a set and 5-3 down to beat Madison Keys in the semifinals Thursday.
“I’m really proud of myself that all those years I have been working so hard helped me to become world No. 1,” Sabalenka said.
Still, when the native of Belarus thought of her family who were let down by her defeat, Sabalenka couldn’t hide the hurt.
“They’ve been awake and watching,” she said, fighting back tears during the trophy celebration. “Sorry for this result.”
For a while, the match was looking like so many Sabalenka played in the majors this year. She entered with a 23-2 record, highlighted by the Australian Open title, as even the top players seemed helpless against her power.
The 25-year-old pounced on Gauff early, breaking her serve three times while winning the first set in 40 minutes. But the No. 6-seeded American kept running down balls and forcing Sabalenka to hit an extra shot, and too many of them started flying long of the baseline or wide of the sideline.
“Definitely she was moving just unbelievable today,” Sabalenka said. “But then the second set I started probably overthinking, and because of that I started kind of losing my power. Then she started moving better and I started missing a lot of easy shots.”
Sabalenka ended up with 46 unforced errors, including 16 against just two from Gauff in the final set.
Sabalenka tried to remain upbeat during the celebration after the match. She joked with the fans who were applauding her now, but largely and loudly rooted for the American during for the previous two hours.
“You guys could have supported (me) like this during the match,” she said.
She teased her coaches and trainers, saying: “They know they will be fired after this tournament.”
But then she told them how much she appreciated their work and how much remained.
“As always, we’ll come back stronger, right?” Sabalenka said.
She certainly did after last year, when a loss to Iga Swiatek in the semifinals was the second straight year Sabalenka fell one match short of the final in Flushing Meadows. She will finally see her name ahead of Swiatek’s in the rankings on Monday, and wants it to stay there.
“It’s good that I can say I have been world No. 1, but I really would like to finish the year as world No. 1,” Sabalenka said. “That’s why I’m still positive and I’m still motivated.”
Image credits: AP