How Aryna Sabalenka, winner of Wuhan Open, is taking the game by storm

by: Steve Tignor | September 29, 2018

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Has a bandwagon ever filled up quite as quickly, or enthusiastically, as the one that has been following Aryna Sabalenka around the world over the last four months? The 20-year-old’s own coach, Dmitry Tursunov, says that even he has been a little stunned by the intensity of the attention she has received. Not that he doesn’t share everyone else’s excitement over Sabalenka and her unique talent.

“She could be the person that changes the game the way Serena changed the game, or the way Seles changed the game, or the way Graf changed the game,” Tursunov told WTA Insider earlier this week.

Tursunov spent Saturday in Wuhan watching Sabalenka the way he always watches her: With a slight smile, of bemusement and amazement, at what she was throwing down and pulling off on court. What other reaction could he have? Sabalenka plowed through another quality opponent, Anett Kontaveit, 6-3, 6-3, to win her second and most important title, at the Dongfeng Motor Open. This was a $2.7 million Premier 5 event that had, for a second or two at the beginning of the week, included most of the WTA’s Top 10. But the 16th-ranked Sabalenka, who was hardly a blip on the tour’s radar screen 12 months ago, dropped just one set on her way to winning it.

In controlling the action so thorougly against Kontaveit, Sabalenka showed again why Tursunov’s talk of her transformational potential can’t be dismissed as the words of a coach sticking by his player.

She won first of all with her serve. A long-limbed six-footer with a fluid motion and towering upward extension, Sabalanka can hit the flat rocket down the T, the slice wide, and the second serve kick. When she’s finding her targets with them, she’s tough for anyone to stop. Sabalenka didn’t face a break point in the first set against Kontaveit, and she won 75 percent of points on her second serve in the second set—that kick is as important to her game as the flat first ball. If you’re looking for reasons to be bullish about Sabalenka over the long haul, her serve is a pretty positive indicator. Much like, say, Serena Williams, that shot will allow her to control her own destiny in matches, and bail herself out when the rest of her game goes south.

Sabalenka won second of all with her ground-stroke precision. Tursunov has talked about the work they’ve done on making her more coordinated, and sometimes, as she unfurls her long swings, it’s difficult to believe she’s going to be able to get everything together in time to make clean contact—there would seem to be a lot that can go wrong in her strokes. Except that usually nothing goes wrong. It isn’t that Sabalenka is incredibly consistent; she can go for too much, and her form can go off. What’s striking is how often, when she sees an opening on the other side of the court, she’s able to choose the right place to hit the ball, and to put it in exactly the right spot. There’s a specificity to where Sabalenka hits her winners that, as Tursunov says, really does feel like something we haven’t seen before. Even when Sabalenka isn’t precise, her shot production—the big swing, the loud grunt, the body launched toward its target—is impressively daring athletic. She’s not afraid to miss.

Is she afraid of anything? The last thing you learn about any young player is whether or not they can close. The ability to cross the finish line has nothing to do with technique or coordination or power; it’s an entirely different, psychological skill. Judging by her win over Kontaveit on Saturday, Sabalenka can close. From 3-3 in the second set, she won three straight games, breaking serve twice, and finished with a nerveless forehand that landed smack on the sideline for a winner.

If you’re not on the Sabalenka bandwagon yet, now’s the time to reserve your spot.

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