MELBOURNE—For good reason, Aryna Sabalenka has been cited as a star of the future. At the 2018 US Open, Sabalenka gave eventual champion Naomi Osaka her toughest test of the tournament, losing their fourth round match, 6-4 in the third set. Seeded 11th at the Australian Open, Sabalenka hits the ball so hard and often (but as we’ll see, not always) competes with so much exuberance that it wasn’t out of bounds to consider her a plausible long shot champion. Once upon a time, for example, a lively shot-maker of an American was seeded 12th at the US Open. Two weeks later, 19-year-old Pete Sampras had won his first major. And to see Sabalenka in full glory is to witness a whole new level of firepower. Call it tennis of the 2020s.

But the language of opportunity was savagely brushed off Sabalenka’s table today. In 65 rapid minutes, she was emphatically beaten in the third round, 6-3, 6-2, by a 17-year-old American, Amanda Anisimova, who called the victory, “probably one of the best matches of my life.”

Though just ranked 87, Anisimova has demonstrated potential to rise much higher. At Indian Wells last year, she earned wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Petra Kvitova prior to suffering a foot fracture in Miami that kept her off the tour for four months. But by autumn, at a WTA event in Hiroshima, Anisimova won three matches in the qualifying and four in the main draw to reach the finals, where she was beaten by the crafty Su-Wie Hsieh. Learning from that defeat, this year Down Under she’s earned wins over another cagey veteran, Barbara Strycova, and slicer par excellence, Monica Niculescu.

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Amanda Anisimova, 17, played like a veteran in win over Sabalenka

Amanda Anisimova, 17, played like a veteran in win over Sabalenka

In raw tennis terms, Sabalenka-Anisimova promised to be far more straightforward. Make that very straightforward: each of these two lives for the chance to virtually break the ball in half. On the first point, Sabalenka crushed a forehand winner. On the next, Anisimova replied with one of her own.

Soon enough, though, Anisimova upped the ante with a vengeance. Her exquisitely pruned backhand consistently pinned Sabalenka deep in the court, in turn giving her the chance to dispense a stream of winners—drives down the line and crosscourt, a few rollers into the alley.

Serving at 3-2 deuce, Anisimova snapped off two straight aces, wide in each corner. In 32 minutes, Anisimova took the first set, 6-3.

Sabalenka does not like playing defense. Come to think of it, does she even know how to play defense?  Surprisingly pushed into the corners, an alarmed Sabalenka had little aptitude for movement, recovery or safe, high depth.

As the Anisimova storm thundered louder with each passing game, Sabalenka’s attitude grew increasingly negative. Perhaps the 20-year-old was vexed at in this instance being the older player. But as expressive as Sabalenka was with her body language—issuing a loud scream early in the second set—her racquet was mostly muted. At this point, it appears that Sabalenka has but one playing style with three variations: hard, harder, hardest.

Anisimova remained serene. Why not when all you touch turns to gold?

“I was just so excited,” she said.  “I was going to be playing on a big court. I was just trying to have fun out there, and I was really enjoying myself.”

Amanda Anisimova, 17, played like a veteran in win over Sabalenka

Amanda Anisimova, 17, played like a veteran in win over Sabalenka

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In the second set, Sabalenka served at 0-3, 15-15 and advanced to net off the heels of a powerful drive. All Anisimova could do was flick the underspin forehand borrowed from squash. Sabalenka let it go—and it gently landed deep into the deuce court pocket for a winner. Utterly distraught, likely thoroughly convinced there was no way she could win, Sabalenka double-faulted on the next point. But she fought off that deficit to stay just one break down, 3-1.

Anisimova then held at love and at 1-4 again had points for a double-break, this time going up love-40. As if on a lark, Sabalenka won that love-40 point with a drop shot and took the next four points to stay mildly close at 4-2.

But at heart, Sabalenka had surrendered much earlier. No question, Anisimova was on fire. But Sabalenka had done zero to at least attempt to derail her—no variations in height, depth, spin, serve placement, return position, forward movement. Mix in the attitudinal angst and you have all the makings of a very bad day.

The second set lasted one minute longer than the first, Anisimova closing it out, 6-2.

“I have never had that much fun in a match before,” she said, “and the crowd was just amazing, supporting me all the time. It was just really enjoyable and I love playing here.”

Amanda Anisimova, 17, played like a veteran in win over Sabalenka

Amanda Anisimova, 17, played like a veteran in win over Sabalenka

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