Sabalenka Is Finding Winning Solutions At US Open

Aryna Sabalenka (photo: Darren Carroll/USTA)

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, September 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Aryna Sabalenka has been nothing if not consistent during this year’s US Open, winning five straight. Her 43 victories this season put her at the top of the WTA leader board. Now, the personable, 23-year-old native of Belarus finds herself just two wins shy of garnering her first major singles title. With a first-time women’s champion guaranteed to be crowned on Saturday, Sabalenka figures “why not me?”

“It means a lot. I love to be in New York, and the US Open is one of my favorite Slams,” said Sabalenka, with a hint of laughter in her voice, following her straight-set quarterfinal win over No. 8 seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic Tuesday evening on Arthur Ashe Stadium. She overcame seven double faults to hit six aces and 22 winners during her one-hour, 25-minute 6-1, 6-4 triumph against the reigning French Open champion.

“I watched her matches and saw that she is playing really well,” Sabalenka added. “She’s really consistent this year. I tried to focus on myself and tried to put as many balls back in play as I could. I think it worked really well today.”

Throughout this New York fortnight, Sabalenka has been the more dominant player in each of her five victories. After losing the second set in her first-round win over Serbia’s Nina Stojanovic, Sabalenka has put together a clean slate of straight-set victories in beating Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia, No. 26 seed Danielle Collins of the United States, No. 15 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium and Krejcikova. Once No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty went down in the third round on Saturday, it elevated Sabalenka as the highest-remaining seed left in the women’s draw.

“During the tournament, especially the Grand Slam, there is different challenges, like the first challenge is like to go through the first round because it’s always tough,” Sabalenka said after her Round of 16 victory against No. 15 seed Mertens, her longtime doubles partner with whom she won the 2019 US Open doubles title. “Then it’s about to keep this consistency and to even kind of, like every match, you’re building your game like getting ready for the harder matches in the tournament.

“It’s always a different challenge. Right now I’m facing another challenge playing against Grand Slam champions, doesn’t matter who it’s going to be. So, it’s another challenge, but I’m ready for it.”

With her quarterfinal victory over Krejcikova, Sabalenka has won nine consecutive sets to reach her second straight major semifinal.

“She’s in such a good shape,” Krejcikova said during her post-match interview in praise of Sabalenka. “She’s just playing pretty good tennis. That’s what she did today.”

According to US Open data analysis, the 5-foot-11-inch (1.82 m) Sabalenka has spent more time on offense – 27 percent – than any other player since 2017. So, how is she controlling her matches? Well, Sabalenka’s average first-serve speed (109 mph) is significantly higher than average (98 mph), which is allowing her to contact 70 percent of her third shots inside the baseline. Because of that, she’s particularly destructive when the ball comes down the middle third of the court, winning 68 percent of those points – most at this year’s US Open.


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Is the time right for Sabalenka, a winner of 10 career WTA titles, to shine in the US Open spotlight? Perhaps. After all, including last night’s win, the Belarusian (43-14) has recorded three Top 10 victories this season, including wins against Barty in the Madrid title match and against Simona Halep in a semifinal victory at Stuttgart. She began the season by winning a hard court tournament in Abu Dhabi. Reaching her first major semifinal at Wimbledon was a big hurdle to clear. Now, she’s done it again at the US Open.

“Yeah, second semifinal, and hopefully I can keep it up,” Sabalenka said during her post-match interview Tuesday. “That’s amazing. I’m really proud of myself and I’m really proud of my team that they always working, they always trying to find things where I can improve. This is what I am mostly proud of.

“I have another chance to show my best and to show my level on the court.”

Sabalenka’s next test will come against 19-year-old teen sensation Leylah Fernandez of Canada, whose ousting of former US Open champions Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber – plus her Tuesday afternoon victory over No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina – has made her Cinderella story a remarkable one that has captured a lot of media attention. Sabalenka will be the fourth straight Top 20 opponent for Fernandez.

“I was following her games. Yeah, she’s playing well, moving well,” Sabalenka said of her 73rd-ranked semifinal opponent whom she will be facing for the first time. “I would say it’s nothing to lose for her. She’s a great player. She’s fighting for every point. The crowd are there and they are supporting her really loud.

“I was practicing today, and we didn’t really need to watch the score because we heard, like, the crowd really yelling.

“It will be interesting one. Really looking forward for this match.”

During her post-match interview Tuesday, Sabalenka was asked if her mentality has changed now that she’s reached the last four in consecutive majors, first at Wimbledon and now at the US Open.

“The only thing it’s changed that I’m not really thinking about the draw, like how far can I go,” she said. “I just start enjoying every match. It sounds simple, but with all the things going around, it’s not easy to focus on each match, to enjoy it, to enjoy every fight, every challenge.

“This is everything I changed, I would say. My focus is like step by step. It’s working well.”

Now, rather than focusing on her problems, Sabalenka, who is coached by her former hitting partner Anton Dubrov and has been working off court with a sports psychologist, said she’s “focusing on what should I do to win this match. I’m not really panicking or, like stressing about it. I’m just, like, trying to stay smart and professional.

“I think this is what helped me today to win this match.”