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Aryna Sabalenka overpowers Elena Rybakina at Wimbledon, books maiden major quarterfinal against Ons Jabeur
The forthcoming match will provide a stylistic contrast after the Belarusian's all-power effort on Monday.
Published Jul 05, 2021
WATCH: Sabalenka's second-round titanic win over Britain's Katie Boulter kickstarted her SW19 campaign.
If stylistic contrasts make for the best match-ups, fans settling into No. 3 Court for Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka could hope for none of the variety they might expect from most any of Manic Monday’s other encounters.
Rybakina and Sabalenka employ what Liudmila Samsonova has cheekily characterized as “boom boom” tennis, and aim to use the grass only to channel their combined power into opportunities to play even faster.
Where the rivals do differ—and thereby turn into an intriguing clash—is in both execution and, typically, presentation. Sabalenka is hardly contained by her side of the court, prone to outbursts as wide-ranging as the take-backs that define her formidable ground game. Rybakina manages a more compact swing that complements her near-comical lack of emotionality; when she clocked one last serve to oust 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams earlier this spring at Roland Garros, commentators laughed at her ostensibly nonplussed reaction.
It took some off-kilter officiating to bring forth what had likely long been bubbling beneath the surface for the Russian-born Kazakh, and the No. 2-seeded Sabalenka took full advantage, winning the last 12 points to finally reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.
“I'm trying to be happy but at the same time be focused and be ready for the next one because it's also not easy match,” Sabalenka said in her post-match press conference.
“Yeah, but of course I'm really happy I finally broke…this wall,” she added wryly.
A force most effective outside major tournaments, Sabalenka ended an interrupted 2020 season with a tour-leading three titles when she scored back-to-back victories in Ostrava and Linz, and won 18 of 19 matches to reach the Australian Open second week—her deepest run at a Slam in over two years—where she ultimately bowed out to Serena Williams in three tough sets.
Roland Garros followed in similar fashion: outplaying world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty to win her biggest clay-court title in Madrid, she hit herself off the court against eventual finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.
The lack of a signature Slam result was burning a big hole in her resume, but Sabalenka has never stopped tinkering. She refined her team last summer, firing longtime coach Dmitry Tursunov and moving hitting partner Anton Dubrov into the primary role. She revamped her pre-match preparation in the hopes of starting each match with a fire already burning.
Beginning her fortnight with a blistering indoor win over Monica Niculescu, a near-defeat to hometown favorite Katie Boulter revitalized her efforts at SW19, and she eased into the fourth round over Colombian qualifier Maria Camila Osorio Serrano.
In the last game when I was up 30-Love I was little bit, like, not crying, but I was almost crying because in that moment I felt like everything is going well, I was a few points from my first personal goal in the Grand Slams. Aryna Sabalenka
Rybakina is fresh off her own maiden quarterfinal after the aforementioned Williams upset, and was finally back the pre-pandemic form that helped her win 20 matches in the first two months of 2020. Unable to defeat Sabalenka in two prior attempts, Rybakina broke serve early in the second set and leveled the match with a hold to love.
As their rivalry entered its third consecutive deciding set, Rybakina struck a serve that was first called out and ultimately deemed an ace by Hawk-Eye. Compelled to replay the point, her hitherto placid demeanor fell away and she argued at length with umpire Anastasia Petrarca, who couldn’t be sure the initial out call interfered with Sabalenka’s return. Though a replay would have cleared all doubt, neither party can be privy to that kind of assistance, and play continued.
Rybakina battled to break point two games later, but couldn’t control a backhand drive, and Sabalenka would lose just four more points, ironically sealing the emotional baseline bashfest with a deft forehand volley.
“In the last game when I was up 30-Love I was little bit, like, not crying, but I was almost crying because in that moment I felt like everything is going well, I was a few points from my first personal goal in the Grand Slams.
“I had to cool down and understand this is not the final goal, there is a match tomorrow, and this is not the moment where I can cry. I kind of hold the breath for a second, then I was smiling.”
With 10 aces and 31 winners, the Belarusian brought a better serve than her equally aggressive opponent, making 61 percent of her first serves and winning well over half of even points played on her second.
"Against Elena it's really important to serve well because she's serving really well," Sabalenka said. "It's really tough to do something on her serve. I'm really happy in the third set, in the last two games, I was dominating. I kind of put her under pressure. I was staying aggressive. Like, I was following my game. Actually, yeah, I broke that game. Yeah, it's really important to serve well against Elena. At the same time it's important to try to return everything you can on her serve and put her under pressure."
She will certainly need to replicate that against Ons Jabeur in her last eight debut.
Jabeur presents the more obvious contrast with a level of shotmaking that puts the game on shuffle for unwitting opposition. Twice down a 7-5 set this fortnight, the Tunisian roared back, first to beat 2017 Garbiñe Muguruza and today over Iga Swiatek—a junior champion who is herself no stranger to variation, but was nonetheless overwhelmed in the final two sets.
A loss to Jabeur in Paris last fall was arguably what kickstarted Sabalenka's end-of-season streak.
"I was really nervous," the Belarusian recalled. "I really wanted to win that match. I wasn't staying aggressive. I was just, like, trying to put the ball back. Against her, this is something what you shouldn't do. If she has the time, then she dictates the game.
"After that match, I don't know, something clicked in my head and I was playing really good tennis, aggressive, like dominating. Yeah, that match means a lot for me."
Onlookers love contrast because it puts their preferred viewing to the ultimate test: can it survive the best of its opposite? The forthcoming quarterfinal between Sabalenka and Jabeur will revisit that debate to its ideological extremes, promising power, touch—and, for one, a place in the Wimbledon semifinals.