WATCH: Sabalenka needed just under an hour to dismiss Marino and reach her first quarterfinal in Canada.

Aryna Sabalenka had only just begun her 20s when she made her maiden voyage to Montréal. The Girl with the Tiger Tattoo stood out around the grounds, sporting Beats headphones that matched her red tennis bag and, at six feet tall, cut an undeniably intimidating figure. It was only in conversation that all her swagger would fall away, leaving a self-deprecating, swear-happy whimsy in its place.

“If I put the ball in at maybe half-speed,” the big-hitter mused to me back in 2018, “that can be enough.”

That search for balance would define a breakthrough season that began in earnest at this very tournament, helping her secure a win over then-reigning Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki. It was again on display Thursday afternoon, through a 6-1, 6-3 win over sentimental favorite Rebecca Marino that took her into a first Omnium Banque Nationale quarterfinal.

“I know you guys were more for her, but I could feel you were also a little bit with me,” she joked during the on-court interview that followed what was ultimately a 59-minute encounter.

In the absence of higher-ranked rivals Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka, Sabalenka is the top seed in Montréal thanks to a career-high ranking of No. 3 and formidable results at the Mutua Madrid Open and Wimbledon, where she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal.


Sabalenka survived a thrilling three-setter with Sloane Stephens in her opening match.

Sabalenka survived a thrilling three-setter with Sloane Stephens in her opening match.

The latter had long been a sticking point on the resumé of an otherwise unquestionable Top 10 fixture; in her first 14 major main draws, she made but two second-week appearances—including one at this year’s Australian Open against Serena Williams.

That all changed at the All England Club, where she lived up to her No. 2 seeding and overcame first-week challenges from Briton Katie Boulter and Kazakh Elena Rybakina. Looking the most convincing of the final four prospects, she led eventual finalist Karolina Pliskova by a set before bowing out in three.

“I was struggling on the Grand Slams, with all emotions going through,” she admitted at Wimbledon. “After every Slam I was so disappointed about myself, that I can't handle this pressure. I actually thought that I will never make it to the second week.”

Looking lighter from having satisfied her own high standards, Sabalenka has made it through two matches her former self may not have survived. Against 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens on Wednesday, she trailed 1-4 in the final set before winning the final five games and nearly verged into similar territory in her second set against Marino.


After every Slam I was so disappointed about myself, that I can't handle this pressure. I actually thought that I will never make it to the second week. Aryna Sabalenka after reaching the Wimbledon semifinal

A former Top 40 standout, Marino has been in and out of tennis for much of the last decade—even briefly retiring due to struggles with anxiety and depression. On the periphery of elite tennis since 2018, her comeback hit new heights this week, thrilling the home crowd with emphatic wins over Madison Keys and Paula Badosa to reach the third round.

Sabalenka found herself at the mercy of the wildcard’s still-impeccable service action despite winning the first five games of the match, and was forced to save a break point in what proved to be a pivotal stand-off at 1-2.

Once out of danger, the top seed regrouped to reel off five of the final six games, nabbing back-to-back breaks to become the first to reach Montréal’s last eight.

While others have benefitted from the staggered ranking system, the Belarusian has been one of the best players of the post-pandemic landscape, winning four titles since action resumed last August—three of which came on the WTA Premier/500 level or higher. That long sought-after balance is at last in her grasp: against Marino, she struck a near-even 18 winners to 15 unforced errors.

Standing between Sabalenka and a first Montréal semifinal will be either countrywoman Victoria Azarenka or Green star Maria Sakkari, who followed Sabalenka and Marino onto Center Court.

Sabalenka has won her last four meetings with Sakkari—though the Roland Garros semifinalist has beaten her on hard courts, most recently in 2019—and enjoys a narrow 2-1 advantage over Azarenka, whom she last beat indoors at the inaugural J&T Banka Ostrava Open.