Dokic: Sabalenka on the brink of Slam success

  • Matt Trollope

Aryna Sabalenka was one of the most improved players in 2021, rising to world No.2 after a career-best season.

But can the explosive Belarusian win a Grand Slam title?

Former world No.4 Jelena Dokic believes so, but said Sabalenka needed to play with more patience, and develop a Plan B, to capture one of the sport’s four most prestigious trophies.

"I think she's got the quality to do it, I think her game is massive. You have to have a weapon to win a Grand Slam, and she's got quite a few of them,” Dokic observed.

“But I think for her it's about balance. It's about, at times, pulling back from what her natural instinct is, and harnessing those weapons in the right way.

"Even taking 20 per cent off her groundstrokes, she would still hit massive shots.

"All in all, this was her best year. She should be very happy with this season and there should be a lot of motivation going into the next year, because she's so close.”

Aryna Sabalenka celebrates her second-round victory over Katie Boulter at Wimbledon
Aryna Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam semifinal in 2021 at Wimbledon and backed that up with a semifinal run at the US Open. (Getty Images)

There is no doubting Sabalenka is verging on major success, given what she achieved in 2021.

She rose from world No.10 to No.2 after winning 45 matches, plus WTA titles in Abu Dhabi and Madrid to take her career tally to 10.

Having never before advanced beyond the fourth round at a major, she reached back-to-back semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open — something Dokic believes is a huge confidence boost heading into Australian Open 2022.

Sabalenka spoke at Wimbledon about her relief at clearing this barrier, and came incredibly close in both London and New York to reaching the final.

But at critical junctures in several big matches throughout the year — especially during her dramatic US Open semifinal clash with Leylah Fernandez — her game imploded.

“Her titles that she's won, even the bigger ones, it's always a tournament she's won in one week. A Grand Slam is two weeks. When you play the type of tennis that's as risky and aggressive as hers is, it's very hard to keep your form for two weeks. You're going to have a dip somewhere,” Dokic said.

“I think she's starting to realise she's very close, she's feeling it, and perhaps a bit of pressure comes in.

“Her natural thing to do, when it’s tight, there's pressure, and she gets nervous, will always be to try and hit her way out of it. That's why all of those double faults and errors crept in, especially against Fernandez. She probably felt like she could win that match based on power alone in the third set, and she went for way too much. And she's done it a couple of times.

“Up until this year she hasn't been in a position to make a Grand Slam final. So there's no doubt it was very new territory.

"I'm not saying that she shouldn't be aggressive, but you just don't need to take the unnecessary risk. If she can learn one thing from this year, that would be it. In those big moments, the worst thing you can do is hit 10 double faults, and hit 20 unforced errors, in a third set.”

Yet in promising signs, Sabalenka has plentiful room to improve, and a high ceiling.

That Plan B Dokic alluded to, for when Sabalenka’s big serve and groundstrokes are missing their mark? It was evident at Wimbledon, where she showed an increased use of slices and drop shots, as well as a willingness to come forward and vary her serve placement.

Dokic also believes Sabalenka has improved her movement, is an extremely hard worker and possesses one of the fiercest competitive instincts on tour.

Evidence of that fighting spirit lies in the fact that of her 18 losses in 2021, 14 extended to three sets.

"If she wasn't willing to work on her game, she wouldn't be developing a slice or drop shot, or she wouldn't be trying to come to the net. She would still be doing similar things to what she was doing years ago,” Dokic said.

“I also think she's fitter than what she was a couple of years back. That shows someone who is so dedicated to improving. That's what I love about her. And I always believe in hard workers.

"I see her winning a Grand Slam. I genuinely think she's on the right path. I would expect next year more good results at Grand Slams.

“Whether she'll win one, I don't know. Maybe? Yes? But it might take another year or two as well.”