WASHINGTON, October 3, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
There are several things that one notices when watching Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus play tennis, in which lately she’s been nearly unbeatable. First, there’s her aggression. Second, there’s her shot placement. Third, there’s her serve. Combined, they’ve helped the currently-ranked No. 16 Sabalenka overpower her competition. She’s shown an appetite not just for playing, but also for winning.
After earning her first WTA title at New Haven, Connecticut, in August, last week the 20-year-old Sabalenka became the youngest champion of the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open in Wuhan, China, as well as the youngest to win a WTA Premier 5 title since 2015. In a week of upsets, in which only six of the top 16 seeds at Wuhan were left by the fourth round, Sabalenka took advantage of her opportunities, thanks to striking big from the baseline and rising up in key moments.
All in a week’s work, Sabalenka beat Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 6 Elina Svitolina and qualifier Sofia Kenin in the first three rounds. Then, in the quarterfinals, she knocked off Dominka Cibulkova, 7-5, 6-3, which advanced her to face the lone-remaining seeded player, No. 16 Ash Barty, in the semifinals.
Against Barty, Sabalenka played steady and won convincingly, 7-6 (2), 6-4. In the final, she prevailed over Annette Kontaveit, 6-3, 6-3, by combining her body strength with superb shot-making topped by a solid service game.
“She could be the person that changes the game the way Serena changed the game, or the way Seles changed the game, or the way Graf changed the game,” Dmitry Tursunov, who began coaching Sabalenka earlier this year, told the WTA Insider recently.
Sabalenka continues good run of form in Asia
This week, competing at the China Open in Beijing, a WTA Premier Mandatory event, Sabalenka has picked up where she left off in Wuhan. After receiving a first-round bye, she convincingly beat No. 15 Garbiñe Muguruza, 7-5, 6-4, Tuesday evening on the strength of hitting 36 winners for her seventh consecutive victory and 47th overall this season. It advanced her to the round of 16 against 2017 China Open champion Caroline Garcia, ranked No. 8.
En route to her win over Muguruza, British tennis journalist Abigail Johnson tweeted, “The best players up the ante when it matters most, and Sabalenka is becoming one of those players.”
Now, Sabalenka, who sports a colorful, in-your-face tattoo of a tiger on her left forearm, is on the cusp of qualifying for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals in Singapore, something few expected at the start of 2018.
Joining forces with Tursunov
Looking back, Sabalenka was ranked No. 61 in the world in April after beginning the year at No. 73. Since then, she started working with Tursunov, a former ATP Top 20 player, and it’s proved to be a winning combo. Sabalenka reached the final at Eastbourne, advanced to the semifinals at Cincinnati, lifted the trophy at New Haven, and won three rounds at the U.S. Open before losing to eventual champion Naomi Osaka in the round of 16. Since June, she’s beaten seven Top 10 opponents – Garcia, Svitolina, Julia Goerges, Karolina Pliskova, Caroline Wozniacki, Madison Keys, and Petra Kvitova.
“Great summer, yeah,” she told Sport360’s Reem Abulleil, during a recent interview in Wuhan. “It’s really important for me of course. It’s always important to beat top players, especially for yourself. You start to believe in yourself even more after each win. It’s always something special.”
Kvitova, who lost to Sabalenka in the third round of the U.S. Open, called her a “fearless” player. “Even when she is down, she is just going for it, especially with the serve. It’s her weapon, for sure,” Kvitova told Sport360. “I think mentally she’s stronger than she was before. Always, probably the confidence is the important thing in the tennis. That’s what I think that she has. She just built on it. That’s probably why she’s playing well. She’s confident enough to face great players.”
Breaking inside the Top 10
Today, with her confidence boosted by so many good, quality hard-court wins, Sabalenka is provisionally ranked No. 12, and is on the verge of cracking the Top 10 with another big result this week in Beijing. Not bad for the Minsk native, who took up playing the sport at age 6 after driving by a tennis court and thought she would give it a try. The Belarussian’s recent success puts her in the running for Singapore. Currently, she’s in 11th place – three spots from qualifying for the year-end WTA championship. Sabalenka is also in third place for the WTA Elite Trophy competition in Zhuhai that occurs the week after Singapore. Either way, she’ll have a chance to add to her already outstanding season in what has been an exciting break-out year.
“I think I’m close,” said Sabalenka, “but only if I will be confident with my mind, that’s the main thing.”