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Aryna Sabalenka builds steam through clay-court surge in Madrid
Aryna Sabalenka has often been described as “hit and miss.” Increasingly, her hits are outweighing her misses. On the Belarusian’s one-sided win over her former doubles partner, Elise Mertens, in Madrid.
Published May 05, 2021
“Who can stop Aryna Sabalenka?”
This is the question that the Mutua Madrid Open’s on-court interviewer has posed to Sabelenka after each of her last two victories this week. It’s not one that players are asked very often; was Sabalenka really expected to name someone who might beat her? But it seems appropriate right now. Anyone who has watched her roll through one in-form opponent—Jessica Pegula, 6-1, 6-2—and another—Elise Mertens, 6-1, 4-0, ret.—will likely wonder if there’s anyone who can stay with her right now.
Mertens certainly wasn’t up to the task. Sabelanka’s former doubles partner was coming off one of her career-best wins over Simona Halep in three hard-fought sets, and it showed. She offered little resistance in the early going, and after taking a medical time-out in the second set she ultimately retired with a leg injury. But that doesn’t take anything away from Sabalenka’s performance, or the evolution that she undergone in recent months.
“Hit and miss” is how she has traditionally been described, and for good reason. Whether her shots are clicking or not, she keeps going for them, and because of that her level can rise and dip from one set to the next. In the Stuttgart final last weekend, Sabalenka won a convincing first set over the top seed, Ashleigh Barty, and then suddenly couldn’t put a ball in the court. She lost the second set 6-0, and the third 6-3.
Still, her hits have been outweighing her misses lately, and she has kept her level higher for longer periods of time. Starting from the Australian Open, Sabalenka has lost only to Serena Williams, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Barty. Right now, she’s on a trajectory that would make her a dark-horse threat for the title at Roland Garros.
Sabalenka’s increased patience and improved problem-solving skills were on display on Wednesday. Mertens, who knows Sabalenka’s game as well as anyone, tried to loop balls high and then up the pace on her next shot, but the Belarusian put a stop to it by moving in and taking the ball on the rise. Something that, at 6’0”, she’s quite capable of doing.
“In the beginning it was really tough to play against her,” Sabalenka said. “Because she was using like high balls and mixing it with slice and then try to stay aggressive, so trying to kind of understand what she’s doing. As soon as I understand what she’s trying to do, I was kind of like stepping into the court and try to be, like, a little bit more aggressive and like going through the ball and tried to hit heavy shots.”
“I think after first few games I would I say I kind of destroyed her a little bit.”
In the midst of that destruction, there were two moments, and two shots, where Sabalenka showed how sky-high her potential is.
The first came on a Mertens moon-ball that pushed Sabelanka behind the baseline. Instead of lobbing the ball back, which seemed to be her only play, Sabalenka rolled a forehand past Mertens for a winner. She generated all of her own pace and hit the ball from well back in the court, and yet she applied enough topspin that it didn’t look like a risky shot.
The second came on a short ball to her backhand. By the time Sabalenka reached it, the ball had dipped below net level. Most players would have settled for a slice approach, but Sabalenka bent down and, without breaking stride, drove a backhand into the corner for a winner. She has credited better movement for her recent results, and you could see it here. She didn’t give Mertens any room to breathe.
As with most players, Sabalenka’s game often follows her serve; when she stops making the first one, she stops playing well. But that wasn’t true today. Her first-serve percentage was a shade under 45, but she wasn’t broken once. How much was that a product of Mertens’ injury and fatigue? We’ll know more when Sabalenka takes on a harder hitter and presumably fitter player, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, on Thursday.
Who can stop Sabalenka? Don’t be surprised if you hear that question again tomorrow.