Tennis Channel Live: Before Sabalenka's loss in the night session, Maria Sakkari defeated Iga Swiatek.

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To watch Aryna Sabalenka play her best tennis is a remarkable sight. On Sabalenka’s good days, in the spirit of such greats as Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova, the 23-year-old Belarussian wholeheartedly embodies the concept that it’s best for a tennis player to simply swing freely, without fear of potential negative consequence. As legendary coach Vic Braden once said, the ball doesn’t know what the score is.

It’s a liberated approach, intermittently familiar to players at all skill levels who return a fault serve by launching a missile of a drive. Commence the point, though, and much often gets bottled up—at least for a great many mortals who lack Sabalenka’s high level of confidence.

This has been a breakout year for Sabalenka. By the end of 2020, she was ranked No. 10 in the world and in her career won eight WTA singles titles. But Sabalenka had also never reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam singles tournament. That drought ended nicely this summer, when Sabalenka advanced to the semis at both Wimbledon and the US Open. She’s now soared up to No. 2 in the rankings and is seeded first at this week’s WTA Finals event in Guadalajara.

But Sabalenka is also rusty. Having missed Indian Wells due to a positive COVID test—she was subsequently vaccinated—and lost in the quarterfinals of Moscow two weeks ago, Sabalenka has only played two matches since the US Open. This is hardly the best preparation for a big-swinging, flat-ball hitter to compete at a tournament being played in altitude north of 5,000 feet. Her opening match at this event will be versus Paula Badosa, in fine form following a title run at Indian Wells. One can only wonder how tightly Sabalenka’s racquets will be strung to generate the control required to keep the ball inside the lines.

Sabalenka powered to back-to-back major semifinals after failing to pass the fourth round stage prior to 2021.

Sabalenka powered to back-to-back major semifinals after failing to pass the fourth round stage prior to 2021.

Then again, Sabalenka can greatly stretch the dimensions of the court. I recall the first time I saw her play, back when Sabalenka was still a teenager. It happened four years ago this month, in the finals of the 2017 edition of the Fed Cup (now the Billie Jean King Cup) versus Sloane Stephens. This came just two months after Stephens had won the US Open. Over the course of three high-octane sets, Sabalenka won that match, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Her raw firepower was staggering. This was no incremental upgrade, but something even bigger: a spirited, loud and inspired brand of aggression that instantly put the then-78th-ranked Sabalenka on the tennis radar screen.

"I'm full of emotions," Sabalenka said that day. "It was a very nervous match and I had to battle not only with my rival but against myself as well.” That it took place in her hometown of Minsk naturally figured into all the emotion she brought to it.

Less than a year later, I sat inside Louis Armstrong Stadium at the US Open and saw Sabalenka give eventual champion Naomi Osaka her toughest test of that title run. In a round of 16 battle marked by extraordinary power off both sides, Osaka rallied from a break down in the third set to win, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. The intensity and baseline skill each showed throughout that match raised hopes for Sabalenka-Osaka as a potentially great rivalry. Alas, they have not played since.

And while that fortnight in the New York was the first of Osaka’s four Grand Slam titles, Sabalenka’s progress has been far more, to use a word not often associated with her, deliberate. Note, though, that to determine the speed of a professional tennis player’s results is an impossible task. Even Rod Laver lost four of the first five Grand Slam singles finals he played.

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It’s equally complicated to analyze Sabalenka’s self-belief: What fuels it? Head? Heart? Something beyond both? Neither? Those who enjoy watching her play tell me how much they love the way Sabalenka is always willing to, as one friend put it, “go for it no matter what.” But I dare amend that notion. When Steph Curry takes a shot from 32 feet—longer than most NBA players—is this his version of going for it? Or, in fact, is Curry merely doing what he’s been trained to do, what he’s practiced again and again and again?

Instinct can best be defined as trained knowledge. Wasn’t instinct what made Seles and Sharapova so great? And with a completely different style, the pattern was similar for the lively Laver. “You work hard to hit those shots,” Laver once told me, “and then in a match you’ve just got to let it go.”

I have no idea how Sabalenka’s career will continue to evolve, both because I hate making predictions and also since only this year did she go past the fourth round of a major. Certainly, she is a player of interest, a captivating ball-striker who has nicely made her way up the ranks. Two clay court finals Sabalenka played this year versus Ashleigh Barty were particularly compelling. In Stuttgart, Barty won 3-6, 6-0, 6-3. Two weeks later, in high-altitude Madrid (2,690 feet), Sabalenka earned a rollercoaster-like victory, 6-0, 3-6, 6-4. Like the Osaka match three years ago, those battles have triggered the belief that Sabalenka is continuing to harness her assets and blossom into a sustainable contender at the game’s biggest events. Surely, the WTA Finals will reveal much.

Sabalenka's WTA Finals got off to a brutal start on Thursday—a 6-4, 6-0 loss to Paula Badosa.

Sabalenka's WTA Finals got off to a brutal start on Thursday—a 6-4, 6-0 loss to Paula Badosa.

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Lack of match play, altitude, attitude, and, most of all, a formidable opponent, contributed to Sabalenka losing her opening match to Paula Badosa in the Akron WTA Finals, 6-4, 6-0.

Oddly enough, Sabalenka got off to a good start. In the first set, paced by her customary brand of power, Sabalenka served at 4-2 and held a game point. But Badosa fought back methodically, her comeback fueled by a well-calibrated mix of power, placement and tenacity. Strand by strand, Sabalenka unraveled. Serving at 4-4, 30-all, she badly mistimed a forehand, was broken on the next point – and from there, the match was conclusively over. Over the last four games of the second set, a clearly demoralized Sabalenka won a scant four points. Were this any other tournament, she’d likely rapidly be on an airplane. But the round-robin format is altogether different, and so we shall see in two days what Sabalenka can bring.