Sabalenka, Serena, Simona: Sloane Stephens' US Open defense begins

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My Tennis Life—Lucie Safarova prepares for the 2018 US Open:

NEW YORK—Walking along the alleyways of the outside courts at Devonshire Park in June, a player I had never seen before caught my eye. She was tall, broad shouldered, with striking features and carried herself with an air of someone who belonged. She does now.

Reaching the final at Eastbourne, where she lost to Caroline Wozniacki, was but a stepping stone for Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus. On Saturday she overcame the experienced Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-1, 6-4, to win her first WTA title at the Connecticut Open. She arrives at the US Open, not just as the 26th seed—a leap for someone who finished 2017 ranked No. 78—but as the player everyone is talking about.

Sabalenka is just 20 and seems poised for a career that could take her in just about any direction she chooses if she continues to work and improve. Hollywood agents looking for the next Gal Gadot or Maggie Q should take a look. With her arched eyebrows and fierce expression—at least on court—this powerful six-foot athlete has all the makings of an action star.

But, being the professional she evidently is, Sabalenka will thinking of nothing except her first round at Flushing Meadows, where America’s talented Danielle Collins awaits her. Should she progress, Petra Kvitova could be a third-round opponent with Naomi Osaka and  Cincinnati champion Kiki Bertens lying in wait before Caroline Wozniacki at the quarter final stage.

That may be thinking way too far ahead for someone with so little big-time match play under her belt. Having lost in the US Open qualifying last year, Sabalenka arrives in New York with just one Grand Slam win from only three Grand Slam main draw appearances. But players burst through in their own time and at their own pace. We have seen that with 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece on the men’s side. Last November he could not gain a place in the NextGen draw in Milan. Now, after beating Novak Djokovic on his way to the Canadian Open final three weeks ago, he is seeded 15th in New York.

So Sabalenka will just have to draw on what experience she has this week—and remember that one of her biggest victories to date came against the reigning US Open Champion Sloane Stephens in the final of the 2017 Fed Cup. If Aryna is dreaming of winning Grand Slam titles, Sloane would be able to give her a good reality check. Like Ana Ivanovic after winning the French Open at an early age; Kvitova after winning her first Wimbledon; and Angelique Kerber who went into a steep, if temporary decline after winning the Australian and US Opens in 2016, Stephens found it almost impossible to win a match for the remainder of 2017 after her triumph here 12 months ago.

“Obviously a lot of stress, a lot of pressure,” was Sloane’s reply to a question about what it was like to be defending champion. “There’s just a lot more expected of you,” she went on. “I think that is a little bit hard to adjust to—in general just less days for myself.”

The weight of success lies more heavily on some player’s shoulders than others and the probably the best thing to do is remember what Billie Jean King has suggested: Pressure is a Privilege. So try and enjoy it.

Handling success is different for everyone, and obviously Serena Williams has had more experience of it than most. It would be wrong to suggest that Serena has not felt pressure, but it has rarely stopped her from winning. Now, she returns to the US Open with a specially placed seeding of 17, with the possibility of having to play Venus in the third round before even thinking of top seed Simona Halep right after that—should she win.

At the moment, Serena seems unable to decide exactly where her game stands—“I don’t know that I would be favorite at this point, almost a year after having a baby,” she said—but it seems clear that the will to win has not left her.

“If anything I have more fire in my belly,” she said last week. It’s very hard to describe. I thought after having a child I would be more relaxed….but I’m not. I wok just as hard if not harder actually. I just feel I take it just as serious if not more. That’s been really surprising for me.”

So perhaps top seed Simona Halep is the favorite, but the margins are narrow. Madison Keys has the experienced coach David Taylor by her side now, although she is still in constant touch with Lindsay Davenport, and may have learned enough from her loss to Stephens in last year’s final here to go one step further. As 14th seed Keys finds herself in one of the easier sections of the draw, if anything is easy at Grand Slam level. And there is no question that she has the weapons.

That could be said of quite a few contenders in his hard-hitting age. But, of course, it requires more than fire power to conquer one of the game’s most demanding tournaments. Momentum frequently plays a part and it will be fascinating to see how far it can carry Sabalenka, the freshest face in the game.


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