FLASHBACK: Sabalenka kicked off her 2023 Roland Garros campaign with a first-round victory over Marta Kostyuk.

PARIS—There was a lot happening on Court Philippe-Chatrier and Aryna Sabalenka was annoyed.

The No. 2 seeded Belarusian was making her first public appearance since retreating from the open press conference format after a particularly explosive exchange with a Ukrainian reporter. She was playing the first night session of Roland Garros 2023 to feature a women’s match, and the rowdy crowd—fearful of a 50-minute blowout—was intent on getting its money’s worth. But of primary irritation was the fact that, after five games of flawless tennis, Sabalenka could no longer hit through opponent Sloane Stephens, a former world No. 3 and 2018 finalist.

Sabalenka shifted uncomfortably, lacking the confidence she has carried through a revelatory season and instead gesturing frantically at her team at a tournament that was becoming less and less about her tennis. The clay, which had been unable to deny her raw power through her first three and a half matches, was suddenly blunting the big cuts she persisted in taking—forcing her to go, and miss, even bigger.

Conversely, Stephens, lackadaisical to start, was clearly lifted by the crowd, who roared for the American with each miss from Sabalenka and suddenly, a set the world No. 2 led 5-0 couldn’t be closer, six games all.


Sabalenka took a 5-0 lead over Stephens before the match suddenly turned.

Sabalenka took a 5-0 lead over Stephens before the match suddenly turned.

At five points apiece in the ensuing tiebreaker, the 2017 US Open champion’s ground game, successful on hard courts but built for clay, gave out and Sabalenka clinched her fifth set point—and later, the match: 7-6 (5) 6-4.

Sabalenka took that annoyance off court, once again refusing post-match press in favor of a more controlled setting with a WTA editorial staffer.

“I was just keep telling myself that I have been through a lot of tough situation, and I went through all of this craziness, so I'm strong enough to handle this tiebreak and that gave me so much power, so much belief,” she insisted in the interview.


But her belief that she can handle off-court opponents appears to have disappeared for now.

To the relief of both crowd and organizers, Sabalenka and Stephens did not, in fact, play a 50-minute fourth round. The first set alone ensured of that: Stephens locked in and won five straight games to match the No. 2 seed and even led 4-2 in the ensuing tiebreaker before Sabalenka righted the ship in just about an hour.

But the second set, though quicker for reigning Australian Open champion, was hardly shorter and it took a total one hour and 41 minutes for her to edge into the last eight.

Stephens’ pitch-perfect defense ensured it would be a long night for Sabalenka, who had only played one set more competitive than 6-3 throughout the first week but was left leaking exactly 40 unforced errors as her early break advantage evaporated. Where she has struggled elsewhere, the former world No. 3 has come alive on the terre battue in the last two seasons, reaching the quarterfinals in 2022 and shocking former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova last week en route to the round of 16.

Call it momentum, call it inertia but Sabalenka hasn't lost a match like this in almost a year and wasn't about to start now. Reclaiming her composure, she reeled off the final two games to end the tussle on her own serve, refusing to back off her hyper aggressive game plan but jamming Stephens from the back court just enough to end the sometimes awkward, always intense encounter.


Awaiting her in the quarterfinals is veteran Ukrainian Elina Svitolina in what is essentially a narrative reprise of how her tournament began, with an uncomfortable first-round clash with Marta Kostyuk. Married to France's favorite son Gaël Monfils, Svitolina, who has dealt with the continued assault of her homeland with unparalleled grace and will have the crowd's support in more ways than one. It will then fall to Sabalenka to keep mining the vein of tenacity that has put her in pole position to leave Paris with the No. 1 ranking.

With a maiden Roland Garros semifinal on the line, can Sabalenka continue to transform annoyance into audacity?