US Open: Aryna Sabalenka looks like a Slam champion of the near future

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Coach's Corner: the best returners in the women's game

NEW YORK—When most players grunt, they do it for a sustained period of time, and they do it the same way on each shot. Aryna Sabalenka brings a little more creativity and variety to her sonic outbursts. She’ll let out an “unnnh!” here, and an “ahhhh!” there, and when she finally wins a point, she’ll punctuate it with a high squeal of happiness.

Somehow it all makes sense. When she’s playing well, it sounds like a one-woman symphony of exertion.

Pretty much everything makes sense about Sabalenka’s game right now. She’s just 20, but at Flushing Meadows this week she has carried herself with the easy assurance of a champion—of the present, not the future—rather than the US Open rookie she is. And why shouldn’t she? Sabalenka is coming off a semifinal run in Cincinnati, her first career title in New Haven, and, as of Saturday, a win over No. 5 seed Petra Kvitova, 7-5, 6-1, to reach the round of 16. Sabalenka did more than win, really; over the course of the match’s 85 minutes, she made one of the biggest hitters of the last decade virtually disappear.

Photos by Anita Aguilar

It’s easy to be overshadowed by Sabalenka. She’s 6’0”, but it’s her long limbs and sculpted proportions that let you know you’re in the presence of an athletic force. When she walked into Louis Armstrong Stadium on Saturday night, somebody near me said, “She’s kind of a goddess.” And that was before she even hit a ball.

When Sabalenka sets up for her shots and takes her racquet back in a long loop—“unfurls” is the word that comes to mind—it’s sort of hard to believe she’s going to be able to keep everything coordinated. But she does keep it all coordinated, and when she connects, the stroke looks natural, rather than awkward or mechanical. For someone so tall, she’s very good at reflexing balls back from her shoe-tops, and powering through shots from a near-kneeling position. And while the ball toss on her serve may seem too high for most players, it only adds to the overall sense of length and extension she brings to the court. It also works: On Saturday, Sabalenka showed off a flat serve, a kick, and a hand-cuffing slice into the body.

Sabalenka is a power hitter who is always looking to attack, but she doesn’t thoughtlessly go for broke. She creates a surprising amount of spin, especially with her whipping forehand, and she plays with a surprising amount of margin. Best of all is her ability to find the opening in the court and put the ball there; whether it’s crosscourt, down the line, or inside-out, Sabalenka has a knack for zeroing in and hitting her target with precision. She’s already a much steadier and more polished player than she was a year ago.

In March, Sabalenka lost to Kvitova; asked today what the biggest difference in her game is now, she said, “I think I put in more balls. That’s enough.”

In other words, she knows her shots are big enough and good enough to go up against anyone else’s; it’s just a matter of making them. In general, Sabalenka sounds like she has a simple, straightforward confidence in her ability to make her game better and iron out any flaws.

“I have improved everything,” she said. “You can always improve. I will work with everything. Probably moving on the court, probably serve. I would like to make [a higher] percentage on the first serve.

“We will think about it, and we will work, sure.”

While Kvitova, who double-faulted 10 times, faded down the stretch, Sabalenka played with more freedom, and generated even more pace on her shots. She doesn’t just hope she can win, or make a match close; she already looks like she believes she should win.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she can tell you exactly how she’s doing what she’s doing.

“I don’t know,” Sabalenka said when she was asked why she played so well. “I was focused.”

It was an answer that reminded me of a young Monica Seles—it’s the intense focus of youth, and it can be unstoppable.

Is Sabalenka a future Slam winner? That question now sounds a little dated. It’s been replaced with a new one: Is she going to win the US Open, like, next week? We’ll see; her next opponent, fellow-20-year-old Naomi Osaka, is on a roll of her own, and there will be a considerable collision of momentum when they meet on Monday.

For the moment, Sabalenka is still the type of player who comes off the court and, racquet bag slung over her shoulder, enthusiastically walks straight to her press conference by herself—she’ll learn to make us wait. When she faced the media on Saturday night, she was asked what her coach, Dmitry Tursunov, has told her about approaching her first Open.

“He just say to me, like, ‘Don’t think about you have to make the final or something like that. Just enjoy. Because every match, it’s a new story for you in your history.’”

Sabalenka’s history may be starting now. It may not be over for a long time.

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