Sabalenka powers into AO19 contention

  • Suzi Petkovski

AO19 Ones to Watch: Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka made quite the impression at Australian Open 2018.

In a first-round night clash against Aussie No.1 Ashleigh Barty, the teenager wowed with her raw physicality, go-for-it game, tiger tattoo and undaunted fight in a three-set loss before a packed Rod Laver Arena.

A year on, the imposing Belarusian will return to Melbourne Park as world No.13, the 2018 Newcomer of the Year and arguably the most physically intimidating player in the game. A shade under six feet and extravagantly athletic, 20-year-old Sabalenka could moonlight as Wonder Woman’s body double.

But the Minsk native did way more than look the part in 2018, ticking off one career first after another. Starting the season at No.73, she made four WTA finals, winning her maiden title at New Haven on the eve of the US Open and following up with the Wuhan winner’s garland, to surge to No.11 in October.

Sabalenka scored eight wins over top-10 opponents - only world No.4 Elina Svitolina had a better success rate against the elite - and she led the tour for the most three-set matches played (29) and won (21). She was also the only player to take a set off Naomi Osaka in her run to the US Open title.

She could be that person that changes the game the way Serena changed the game
Dmitry Tursunov, Sabalenka's coach

Sabalenka’s style has been described as ‘heavy-metal tennis’. Risking extravagant errors in pursuit of cracking winners, she is still liable to throw in “a few stupid moments” per match, though her 51-25 record last season confirms those lapses are now few and far between. “She stopped trying [to] hit a winner with every shot,” as her coach Dmitry Tursunov explains it.

The rapidly improving heavy-hitter made her first final of 2018 at Lugano on clay and crashed the top 50 before her 20th birthday in May. But it was during the grass season that she went into ‘beast mode’, as Tursunov puts it.

At Eastbourne she scored her first top-10 win, over Karolina Pliskova, en route to a narrow final loss to No.2 Caroline Wozniacki.

By the end of the US Open, and a career-best fourth round at a major, Sabalenka had defeated at least one top-10 opponent in her last four hardcourt events: Montreal (where she turned the tables on Wozniacki), Cincinnati (Pliskova and Caroline Garcia, before a quality semifinal loss to No.1 Simona Halep), New Haven (Julia Goerges en route to her first WTA title) and Flushing Meadows, where she upended No.5 Petra Kvitova.

 

Born in 1998, the Year of the Tiger (hence the tattoo), Sabalenka has the look of a winner who has a tiger by the tail. “She could be that person that changes the game the way Serena changed the game,” Tursunov, a former world No.20, told the WTA Insider. “The main thing is that she wants to improve and she’s not comfortable where she is. She wants to get better.”

Sabalenka clearly gets a buzz out of expanding her game. Nor does she see losses as failures. “We didn’t care about the result,” she explained at the season-ending WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, after defeating eventual winner Barty in their group match but not advancing to the semis. “We just care about the future and trying to find the way how I can improve more.”

Sabalenka is already making us rethink the usual pro tennis player’s trajectory. Introduced to the game at age six by her father Sergei, a former hockey player, she played zero junior Grand Slams and didn’t train at the newly built national facility in Minsk until 2014.

Little more than a year ago she was unknown even to diehard tennis fans. But in the second half of 2017, she exploded, winning her first WTA match at Wimbledon, reaching her first semifinal at Tashkent in September and, while still outside the top 100, charging into the Tianjin final a fortnight later. Against former idol Maria Sharapova, she led 4-1 and 5-1 in each set before losing in straights.

At year’s end, before a fervent home crowd in Minsk, she and Aliaksandra Sasnovich were hailed as national heroes after leading Belarus to its first Fed Cup final against the US - pushing the tie to the doubles decider as heavy underdogs, and without the services of former No.1 Victoria Azarenka.

At Indian Wells last March, Sabalenka shared a doubles court with her famous countrywoman, whom she has overtaken as her nation’s No.1. Can she also emulate Azarenka, the 2012-13 Australian Open champion, as a Grand Slam winner? Only a year ago, that scenario was fanciful. But her vaulting improvement puts her well in contention at AO2019.

“I didn’t expect [to do] this well,” Sabalenka admitted of her banner season and Newcomer of the Year gong. “Now I’m just enjoying it and trying to improve more and more. It motivates me really well.”