Under Pressure, Sabalenka Is Delivering Her Best

Aryna Sabalenka (photo: Rob Prezioso/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 12, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

On Day Five at the Australian Open, a Friday filled with plenty of star power provided by the lower half of the women’s draw – World No. 2 Simona Halep, No. 3 Naomi Osaka and 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who is seeded 10th were all on the order of play – a common theme that emerged was each under pressure delivered her best.

Take No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka, who began the day’s proceedings on Rod Laver Arena on a cloudy day. The Belarus native is 18-1 in her last 19 matches dating back to the beginning of her title run in Ostrava last fall. Not only did she win three straight titles (Ostrava and Linz at the end of 2020 and Abu Dhabi last month), she was nearly unbeatable until giant slayer Kaia Kanepi beat her in three sets in the second round of last week’s Gippsland Trophy on Margaret Court Arena.

Since that loss, Sabalenka has gone back to work at Melbourne Park and put together a new winning streak that’s now up to three matches, following her 6-3, 6-1 hour-long victory over up-and-coming American Ann Li to move into week number two of the Australian Open.

“I’m trying to improve round by round,” Sabalenka told Tennis TourTalk. “I’m trying to prepare myself well before each match, trying to do everything I can [to win] each match. I’m just trying to stay focused in the moment. I think I’m improving each match.”

Not one to waste any time or energy, Sabalenka fired seven aces, hit 28 winners, broke Li four times and outpointed her 67-44. The Belarusian saved all four break points she faced.

When Tennis TourTalk asked Sabalenka if there’s less pressure on her now that the 15-match winning streak is a thing of the past, she said: “It was good to lose that match, not because of the pressure but it put me back into reality. I was trying to focus on the moment, but at that point I was starting to think nobody could beat me (laughing). I know it’s stupid, but I thought after the match ‘thank you, Kaia. You brought me back into the reality.’ I’m back in the mindset where I’m thinking in the moment.”

Meanwhile, the loss ended a wonderful run for the 69th-ranked Li, a 20-year-old King of Prussia, Pa. native who now lives in Orlando, Fla. After a strict, 14-day quarantine, Li won all four of her matches in the Grampians Trophy last week. Then, she won her first two matches in the Australian Open, including a second-round victory over Alizé Cornet of France, 6-2, 7-6 (6) after being down set points.

“I think that was honestly one of the toughest matches, mentally and physically,” Li said after beating Cornet. “I was extremely tired.”

Looking back, Li won a total of six consecutive matches over eight days before facing Sabalenka. She finished with 10 winners against 14 unforced errors. Sabalenka represented Li’s first match against a Top 10 opponent and it was the first time she’s played on Rod Laver Arena.

“Credit to [Aryna], she served and returned amazing,” Li said during her post-match press conference. “I was like, ‘please, just miss one time (laughing). She’s a great player. All the best of luck to her.”

Next, Sabalenka will face Williams, who took out 19-year-old Russian teen Anastasia Potapova, 7-6 (5), 6-2, in one hour and 37 minutes, by saving two set points and overcoming 31 unforced errors. The 39-year-old American, who has not played against a Top 10 opponent since the 2019 US Open semifinals, has generally played inspired tennis throughout the first week of the Aussie fortnight. Sabalenka and Wiliams have never faced each other.

“It’s a big challenge, but it’s a tough one. I’m going to do everything I can to prepare myself for that match, like mentally be ready to get this win,” Sabalenka said during her press conference. “She’s a great player, and it’s always a big challenge to play against these kinds of players. But I’m going to do everything I can to get this win. We’re all here for the wins and I’m going to do everything.”

Said Williams of Sabalenka: “She hits very hard. She has a big, big power game. She’s a big girl. Strong like myself. I think it will be a really good match.”

One question that remains: Sabalenka has never gone as far as the quarterfinals of a major. Is this the year she shatters the glass ceiling? Maybe, and while it won’t be easy, Sabalenka is doing everything she can to relax and stay stress free.

“I’m trying to stay less on-site, to not put this pressure on myself,” she said. “It’s a lot of people here. Even if you don’t want to put this pressure, the situation is putting on the pressure.

“I’m trying to stay more in the hotel, have a nice walk there in the evening, cook for myself, kind of switch off. That helps me stay in the moment and kind of be on the Grand Slam, but at the same time understand that this is just another tournament.”

Muguruza sets up showdown with Osaka

Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, seeded 14th, breezed into the fourth round with an easy 6-1, 6-1 win over No. 81 Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan on Margaret Court Arena. Last year’s finalist was impressive with 17 winners and five of eight break points won. She caused Diyas to hit 25 unforced errors during their 56-minute third-round match.

“I felt good out here,” said Muguruza during her on-court interview. “We played a year ago and it was a very tough match. So, I’m happy today. I played smarter than last time.”

Asked to describe her mindset, Muguruza smiled at the question, then offered that she’s taking it one match at a time. “I’m know many people think far ahead, but for us we can’t think too far ahead. I just try to win each time I come on court,” she said.

“I think I’m playing well. I’m going to try my best.”

Next, Muguruza faces the third seed Osaka of Japan. The World No. 3 defeated No. 27 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, 6-3, 6-2, in one hour and 18 minutes. Osaka overcame 14 deuces and five break points during her first three service games and went on to hit 26 winners against Jabeur, who reached the quarterfinals a year ago. The 2019 Australian Open champion has now quietly but effectively compiled 17 straight wins.

“My biggest thing I wanted to focus on today was my serve and my return, because those are the things that I can control,” Osaka said during her post-match press conference. “I didn’t know what would happen during the point, but I do know that I can control it if I can get the return back and I can control how I start off my serves. So, I was just basing my entire plan around that.”

Vondrousova, Hsieh advance to second week

No. 19 seed Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic has struggled for consistency since injuring her wrist in 2019. Coming off a semifinal run last week in the Yarra Valley Classic, Vondrousova is starting to regain the form that lifted her into the 2019 Roland Garros final. On Friday, she defeated unseeded Sorana Cirstea of Romania, ranked 72nd, 6-2, 6-4, on Margaret Court Arena.

“I managed to win in like two sets like the last two singles,” said Vondrousova, who has lost just one set during the first week. “So, it’s nice for me and I’m just very happy to be in the second week.”

Next, Vondrousova will face No. 71 Hsieh Su-Wei, who rallied to win the final four games of her John Cain Arena battle against 134th-ranked Sara Errani of Italy, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5. The 35-year-old Taiwanese Hsieh used her all-court knowledge to her benefit and held off Errani, 33, who was two points from winning the match, serving at 5-4 in the final set. The victory was Hsieh’s first in four tries against Errani, and it was the first time she had not lost a bagel (6-0) set to the Italian.

“I better [not] eat a bagel today,” Hsieh quipped during an on-court interview after her win.

It’s the third time (2008, 2018, 2021) that the 35-year-old Hsieh is through to the fourth round at Melbourne.

Intriguing rematch for Halep, Swiatek set

In Friday’s night session, both No. 2 seed Halep and reigning Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek won in straight sets to set up an intriguing fourth-round match on Sunday, a rematch of their French Open round of 16 from last year.

Halep beat No. 32 seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, 6-1, 6-3, on Rod Laver Arena, while the No. 17 seed Swiatek bested France’s Fiona Ferro, 6-4, 6-3, on Margaret Court Arena. In Halep’s victory, she was steady on with 21 winners to just 12 unforced errors, while Kudermetova, a finalist last month at Abu Dhabi, was done in by 38 unforced errors.

“I feel more confident after the match against Ajla (second round opponent Ajla Tomljanovic), because when you stay mentally strong during the matches, you get an extra boost the next one,” Halep said during her post-match press conference. “But still, I’m very focused for what I have to do to the next round, but I’m happier with my game.”

Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Swiatek, who is the only teen left of the seven who began the Australian Open on Monday, put away the 46th-ranked Ferro in one hour and 24 minutes for her 10th straight Grand Slam victory. It’s the fourth time she’s reached the second week of a Grand Slam.

“Right now, I approach matches differently, and I try to forget that I’m a Grand Slam champion, just focus on being here and playing my game,” said Swiatek during her post-match interview. ”

Looking ahead by looking back, Halep routed Swiatek 6-1, 6-0 at the 2019 French Open. Then, a year later, it was Swiatek who won in a rout, 6-1, 6-2, on her way to her first major title. Halep has gone 9-1 since losing to Swiatek last fall in Paris.

Friday’s results

Saturday’s order of play