WATCH—Court Report on Aryna Sabalenka winning the Shenzhen Open:
She stands proudly at No. 11 in the world. She opened her 2019 campaign on a positive note, capturing the Shenzhen Open in China. Across the 2018 season, she won a couple of titles, reached the finals of two other tournaments, and acquitted herself remarkably well. Watching her compete, it is hard to believe that Aryna Sabalenka is only 20. She competes with a maturity we normally associate with someone considerably older.
Regardless of how her draw turns out at the Australian Open, no matter who stands in her path, Sabalenka is one of the more serious candidates to take the first major title of the new year. She is immensely ambitious, determined to make major inroads over the course of the 2019 season, and has the talent and temerity to realize her largest goals in the near future. Sabalenka is entirely comfortable fighting for prestigious prizes on the stages of consequence, testing herself against the best players in the business, and finding ways to flourish with everything on the line.
She did just that in Shenzhen. Facing the seasoned and highly motivated Allison Riske in the final, Sabalenka dropped the opening set and her back was against the wall as she moved into a second set tiebreaker. Riske, now back among the Top 50 in the world and a wily competitor, was sensing the distinct possibility of a victory. But Sabalenka often does her finest work under the fire of added pressure. She came through with extraordinary poise in that tiebreaker, and never looked back, earning a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 triumph in the end. Sabalenka set the tempo in the breaker, aggressively surging into a 4-1 lead, closing it out seven points to two.
But after winning that tournament, she had to take a flight from China to Sydney for another Australian Open tune-up event. The field was so strong that Sabalenka narrowly missed the seeding cut. So she faced Petra Kvitova, the No. 5 seed, in the first round. Sabalenka had played in predominantly cool conditions during her triumphant run in China, but had to adjust to the broiling sun in Sydney, not to mention a top-of-the-line Kvitova.
Kvitova was almost letter perfect in the opening set, winning 88% of her first serve points, finding the corners with regularity off the ground, returning with searing shots off both sides, and looking like the great left-hander she clearly is. Sabalenka was allowed only one game in that opening set, and was thoroughly outclassed. But if she was dismayed by the way she had been crushed by a better ball striker, or baffled about what to do next, she did not show it.
In fact, Sabalenka lifted her game significantly at the start of the second set, finding her range, making more returns, giving little away. Kvitova began spraying balls left and right, missed too many first serves, and her entire game deteriorated. Sabalenka sensed her chance, and moved ahead 3-1 in the second set. But she lost the next three games before bouncing back to lead 5-4 on serve. Kvitova was on the edge of being pushed into a third set, but she buckled down, winning three games in a row, wrapping up a 6-1, 7-5 victory in just under 80 minutes.
Sabalenka was clinically beaten to the punch and ousted by one of the most gifted players in the game, a two-time major champion with many virtues on the court. The fact remains that Sabalenka will head into Melbourne for the Australian Open feeling very upbeat about what she could do there, knowing that a large chunk of the field holds her in the highest regard.
This woman from Belarus has an awful lot going for her. Her record on all surfaces in 2018, and the start she made this year in winning her first tournament, is abundant proof that she can beat anyone in the world. The most obvious example of her propensity to excel was the way she went through the field last September in Wuhan, China. She won six matches that week, all against tough opposition. It started with a victory over world No. 22 Carla Suarez Navarro. She then upended No. 6 Elina Svitolina before taking out world No. 62 Sofia Kenin from the United States. In the quarters, Sabalenka defeated world No. 31 Dominika Cibulkova and then in the penultimate round her victim was world No. 17 Ashleigh Barty. Capping off her stirring march to the title, Sabalenka accounted for world No. 27 Anett Kontaveit, 6-3, 6-3.
That was not an isolated week of inspiration for a player who did not really know what she was doing. Sabalenka can play that way frequently. The hope here is that Sabalenka will get her bearings in Melbourne swiftly, string together some good wins over the course of the first week, and set herself up for a second week at a major that she will remember for the rest of her life.
Serena Williams is my favorite to take the Australian Open title after reaching the finals of her previous two majors. 2018 finalist Simona Halep could win the tournament this year, although the quick courts in Melbourne are not ideal for her game. Angelique Kerber is fully capable of winning in Melbourne for the second time and maybe, just maybe, Svitolina is ready to capture the crown and do herself justice at last.
Be that as it may, I would not be surprised in the least if Sabalenka surpasses them all and comes away with her first major title.
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