Sabalenka’s Focus And Confidence Translating Into Wins

Aryna Sabalenka (photo: sabalenka_aryna/Instagram)

WASHINGTON, January 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 10 Aryna Sabalenka is in the zone. With her latest triumph Friday, in the second round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open in the United Arab Emirates capital city – a 7-5, 6-4 win over Australia’s 68th-ranked Ajla Tomljanovic – the 22-year-old from Belarus is 2-0 in the new year. She’s strung together an impressive 11 consecutive wins dating back to the end of last season, in which she won back-to-back titles in Ostrava and Linz. Her confidence continues to build with each victory.

To observe Sabalenka play tennis these days is an exercise in wonderment, but it can also be a head-scratching experience. Given the opportunity, the talented ball striker is just as likely to unleash thunderous forehand winners as she is to misfire on easy returns resulting in an accumulation of unforced errors. Against Tomljanovic, Sabalenka jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead before letting her opponent back into the first set. Then, in the following set, Sabalenka’s serve was broken three times but she turned around and broke the Australian four times – including on match point. Lately, though, when the match is on the line, Sabalenka stays focused, finding creative ways to win. She outpointed Tomljanovic 81-66.

“I’m staying in the moment,” Sabalenka said during her post-match video conversation, shortly after her one-hour and 40-minute victory. The outgoing Sabalenka beamed a smile as she bantered with international reporters with a towel still draped around her shoulders. “What happened in the past happened in the past, and I’m just focusing on every match. I’m just trying to focus on my game, work through everything, yeah, to try to do my best against every opponent. That’s it. This kind of mentality helped me to build this confidence.”

In Abu Dhabi this week, Sabalenka began her new season with a 7-6 (5), 6-2 win over No. 49 Polona Hercog of Slovenia on Thursday. Now, after beating Tomljanovic, she’s into the third round against 15th seed Ons Jabeur. The 31st-ranked Tunisian rebounded to beat qualifier Kateryna Bonderenko of Ukraine, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.

When Sabalenka was asked by Tennis TourTalk to pinpoint her success in defeating Tomljanovic, she responded: “I was just trying to stay calm, trying to stay in every point, and make sure I’m fighting for every point – even if my serve wasn’t working in the second set. I was just trying to stay focused on each point.”

While Sabalenka may not always have her serve under control – and sometimes her forehand and backhand returns fail her – she always has her character, fighting and focusing on each point.

A tough battle ends in misfortune, tears for Flipkens

No. 1 seed Sofia Kenin of the United States advanced to the third round after her opponent, Kirsten Flipkens, had to retire at 5-7, 5-4 due to a left ankle injury that occurred when the 86th-ranked Belgian stumbled over an advertising block.

During the 10th game of the second set, with Kenin serving, Flipkens, two days shy of her 35th birthday, went back to retrieve a forehand lob hit by the reigning Australian Open champion and collided with a court-level advertising block, painfully rolling her left ankle. Flipkens batted her racquet at the block in anger and frustration and began sobbing before receiving medical treatment to relieve the swelling that occurred on court. While she was able to walk on it as she went to her bench, Flipkens was no doubt livid and could be overheard muttering obscenities.

When Kenin was asked about the incident during her virtual press conference she admitted being upset. “I hit a lob and then I saw her, she fell,” the World No. 4 said. “I thought she was getting up so [I] played the point obviously. But she started crying. I thought it wasn’t too serious like was painful, obviously, but I figured the trainer would come, tape her up and we’d continue. But then it got worse and I got upset, a bit emotional.

“We’re good friends and that’s not something you like to see. I just hope she has a speedy recovery; she’s obviously playing well.

“This is not the way I wanted to win. … This is just really unfortunate, and I’ll write to her later tonight, asking how she is.”

Kenin’s next opponent will be No. 13 seed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan. The 28th-ranked Putintseva beat No. 65 Barbora Krejcikova from the Czech Republic, 6-4, 7-5, for her second victory of 2020.

Other Friday winners include: No. 87 Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia, who defeated Canada’s 88th-ranked Leylah Fernandez, 6-4, 6-4; No. 46 Viktoria Kudermetova of Russia, who advanced over 317th-ranked Italian qualifier Bianca Turati, 6-2, 6-1; and Spaniards Sara Sorribes Tormo and Paula Badosa.

The 66th-ranked Sorribes Tormo required three hours and 22 minutes – and 239 points – to overcome No. 66 Bernarda Pera of the United States, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, in the longest match of the young season; and No. 70 Badosa took out 53rd-ranked Alizé Cornet of France, 6-4, 6-4, who started her 16th year as a pro this week.

What’s in a match up?

When World No. 31 and 15th seed Ons Jabeur faces World No. 10 Aryna Sabalenka, who is seeded fourth in Sunday’s third round, it will be their second career head-to-head. The Tunisian won their French Open third-round tussle last year, 7-6 (7), 2-6, 6-3.

“Sabalenka is Sabalenka, you know?” Jabeur said, smiling about the thought of their rematch. “It’s fun to play her, to be honest. Last time it was a lot of fun. It’s going to be a really nice show and I’m going to tell everybody to turn on the TV.

“It’s going to be a really great match with both of us screaming from the other sides. Both of us hitting winners. It’s going to be an amazing match. I love these kinds of matches. I love this kind of challenge. I like Sabalenka; I like how she players. I like how she reacts on the court. It’s going to be fun.”

Sabalenka was asked about facing Jabeur during her Friday virtual chat with the international media. “I’m just going to play tomorrow against her, respect her game, stay calm and work for every point. .She’s a tricky player and that’s going to be hard, but I’m ready for long rallies and the hard work necessary for this win.”

Friday’s results

Saturday’s order of play

What they’re saying

• Ons Jabeur on her victory against Kateryna Bondarenko: “She played really well and she bothered me a lot with her fast balls. It was windy and the court was fast and it was helping her. She was enjoying it all. It didn’t help me find my rhythm and I tried not to get so frustrated. I didn’t play my best tennis today, but I am happy with the win all the same. I convincing myself that I had to get the win at whatever cost.”

Paula Badosa on maturing as a player: “Now, I’m more prepared; it’s different. I know I have to be there every single point. When you’re there every single point, you find a way [to win] always. … I’m working to get better every day.”

• After being on court nearly three and-one-half hours to gain her second-round victory over Bernarda Pera, Sara Sorribes Tormo was asked about the mental and physical challenges it presented: “You stay focused on every point. I was focused only on what I had to do. You don’t think about [how long the match has gone].

“You fight every ball. I really enjoy playing tennis like this. I was happy I could play many points and win the last one. Physically, I feel really good. Mentally, I think it’s more tough to stay focused on every point. You try to play as good as you can every point, no matter if you win or lose. You enjoy what you are doing and that’s how I like to play.”