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Signs good for Sabalenka, who storms into final eight

  • Dan Imhoff

Even at the height of her powers as an Australian Open champion, Aryna Sabalenka is evolving.

MORE: All the scores from Day 8 at AO 2024

Relaxed as ever off the court and hell-raising on it, it signals a worrying trend for any second-week challengers at Melbourne Park following her 6-3 6-2 demolition of one-time bogeywoman Amanda Anisimova under a closed MCA roof on Sunday.

The second seed’s Australian-born trainer Jason Stacy has even been swept up in her riotous ongoing AO 2024 post-match celebration act.

BONUS: Download your copy of the Australian Open 2024 Official Program

“Somehow, I decided to start drawing my signature on his head,” Sabalenka grinned.

“I did it before the first match. Now it's a routine. Every time he's not super happy that I'm going to do that. He's like, ‘Okay, anything for the win’. I'm like, ‘Thank you’. 

Sabalenka has barely dropped her level across four matches in Melbourne

Sabalenka, who has conceded just 11 games through four rounds to become the first woman since Serena Williams seven years ago to reach six or more successive major quarterfinals, was set to continue the routine provided she kept on winning.

Given her relentless pace and depth of shot against former world No.21 Anisimova, there were ominous signs for her remaining opponents.

Sabalenka is an entirely different adversary in 2024 to that of almost two years ago, when she snuck her first win in five clashes between the pair.

“I'm super happy with the level, happy to get this win,” Sabalenka said.

“She's a tough opponent. I'm super happy to see her back on tour. I'm pretty sure she'll be back on top very soon. I wish her all the best.”

The two first locked horns on MCA in the third round five years ago, when a 17-year-old Anisimova dismantled the-then 11th seed in straight sets before she fell to eventual finalist Petra Kvitova.

It was a precursor to an even deeper Grand Slam run when, four months later, Anisimova repeated the feat against Sabalenka en route to the Roland Garros semifinals and led a set and a break against eventual champion Ash Barty.

The pair’s trajectories have taken wildly different courses since.

Where Sabalenka finally lived up to her potential with a maiden major at Rod Laver Arena last January, Anisimova succumbed to Marta Kostyuk in the opening round, a soul-searching defeat ahead of an eight-month hiatus from burnout and mental health concerns.

The 22-year-old had already shown enough to suggest she could be a top-30 force again following wins over 13th seed Liudmila Samsonova and former world No.2 Paula Badosa this week. But against the reigning champion, Anisimova faced a marked step up in standard. 

Rarely has the American been so overpowered and overawed, and the frustration was evident. Flummoxed at her inability to make inroads, Anisimova flung her racquet.

Sabalenka took the reins and dropped just one point on her first serve in the opening set. Anisimova needed a better start in the second set to stem the flow, but it was not to be as she dropped serve immediately.

One game from the finish line, Sabalenka was hunting a forehand on her third shot 73 per cent of the time, compared to her opponent’s 41 per cent, 13 per cent more than her AO 2023 average.

Sabalenka's hyper-aggressive approach has paid off this fortnight

It was telling proof of a hyper-aggressive ploy, one which helped land victory in 70 minutes to set up a quarterfinal against ninth seed Barbora Krejcikova or unseeded 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva.

MORE: AO 2024 women's singles draw

Stacy could well be in for further scalp signings yet.

“I would say that I thought I will feel differently after winning a Grand Slam,” Sabalenka said.

“It's no different. You still feel the same.

“You still have to bring your best tennis. You still have to fight for it. It's exactly the same feelings like I had one year ago.”