MATCH POINT: Sabalenka sinks Swiatek

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Based on the efficient way Aryna Sabalenka closed out her three-set win over Iga Swiatek Saturday night—serving out a 6-5 game at love—you’d think she was a 21st century version of Pete Sampras: calm, collected, completely in control.

Not quite. Unquestionably, those final four points were masterful—massive forehand, ace number eight, two big serves. After two hours and 18 minutes, Sabalenka had earned a 2-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory to stay in contention for a semifinal spot at the Akron WTA Finals. If Sabalenka indeed was one cool customer at the finish line, this match proved yet again that to watch her compete is to witness an action-packed thriller, chock full of ups and downs, thrills and spills, the ending often in doubt until the very last minutes.

Two days ago, each of these players left the court in tumult, Swiatek in tears following an opening day loss to Maria Sakkari, Sabalenka anguished after dropping the last ten games versus Paula Badosa. The beauty of this event’s round-robin format, though, is that one loss does not spell disaster. But since two defeats usually do, Swiatek is now eliminated. Come Monday, the match between Sabalenka and Sakkari will determine who from this group will join Badosa in the semis.

Sabalenka and Swiatek each played significantly better than they had on Thursday. “I'm not happy that I lost,” said Swiatek, “but I'm pretty happy that I overcome some issues that I had during the last match. For sure my performance was better, my attitude was better.”

But it took a while for them to simultaneously play well. For much of the first set, Swiatek’s mix of movement and margin kept her in rallies long enough to elicit errors from Sabalenka. “I started focusing on how to tactically play against her,” said Swiatek. “I know that she's not like the perfect example of having the same level of game throughout the whole match, so I knew after first set that . . . she's probably going to come back.”

Meanwhile, Sabalenka scratched for form. Serving at 2-3, she commenced that game with a sloppy overhead miss, then went on to double-fault at love-40. By the time Swiatek went up 4-2, 40-love, she’d won nine straight points and went on to win the set on yet another Sabalenka double-fault.

Sabalenka and Swiatek were squaring off for the first time.

Sabalenka and Swiatek were squaring off for the first time.

An odd form of deception can occur versus Sabalenka. She hands away so many points—16 double-faults and 27 unforced errors tonight—that it becomes a challenge to calibrate consistency with aggression. Try this theory: Sabalenka disrupts with prolific inconsistency. Just when you think she’s going to hand away one point after another, she doesn’t so much clamp down as start connecting. It can be extremely unnerving. Having a lead versus Sabalenka can be an illusion, a factual reality that cloaks the reality of a dangerous opponent who scarcely pays attention to the opponent but is always aware of what she needs to do. Said Sabalenka, “After the first set I was just keep saying to myself, You have to get through this challenge, you have to get through this challenge, over and over again and again. I was just like saying, You have to fight, you can't give up like you did in the first match.” That she did.

In the second set, Swiatek became unglued, double-faulting twice at 2-2 to drop her serve. “I think in the second set when I first broke her, I think after that game I kind of start feeling better, I kind of found my game,” said Sabalenka. “I think that first break just change around the game.” Her confidence boosted, Sabalenka’s movement improved too, allowing her to more effectively patrol the court and drive powerful shots into the corners. And even though the double-faults continued to surface, Sabalenka rarely backed off. Serving for the set at 5-2, she fought off three break points, the last with an ace. Two points later, another big serve evened the match.

The quality of play picked up considerably in the third set. With Swiatek serving at 1-1, 30-40, Sabalenka lofted a backhand return with tons of topspin and depth, a shot that allowed her to soon enough take control of the rally and eventually end it with an inside-out forehand winner. And when Sabalenka served at 2-1, 40-15, she appeared primed to sprint to victory, a darn good effort for someone who’s three-set record in ’21 was an underwhelming 9-13.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming: Aryna Sabalenka’s Endless Adventures. A series of double-faults cost her that game. With Sabalenka’s momentum squandered, Swiatek dug in. And yet, even then, Sabalenka seemed to dictate the terms of the conversation: the argumentative dinner party guest who was either going to be proven right or eventually evicted. Swiatek served at 5-all, 30-30. Once again, movement kept her in the rally, a lob leading to a Sabalenka error. But that proved the last point Swiatek would win, Sabalenka going on to snap up the next seven, a swift and ruthless end to a long, close, compelling match. Fade to black, cue the credits and play the round-robin theme song: You Only Lose Once.