Final-ly: Aryna Sabalenka, thrice a runner-up, wins first WTA title

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Analysis of Aryna Sabalenka's game at the 2017 Citi Open:

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—For those of you missing Victoria Azarenka in the later rounds of tournaments, I have some good news. Aryna Sabalenka, who hails from Azarenka’s hometown of Minsk, Belarus, is proving to be a reasonable facsimile to the hard-court great. She possesses a similarly lethal two-handed backhand, a vocal grunt that is part and parcel of her power baseline game, and physical gifts—at 5’11”, she’s just one inch shorter than Vika—that, even at age 20, makes her one of the more dangerous players in the game.

And now, like Azarenka, Sabalenka has a hard-court title to go along with it.

On Saturday, the WTA No. 25 snapped a three-final losing streak at the Connecticut Open, beating Carla Suarez Navarro by a commanding, 6-1, 6-4 margin. Only Sabalenka’s nerves put this result in doubt. It was a mental hurdle she needed to clear, even if her three runner-up finishes at such a young age proves her abilities at tennis’ highest level.

"It’s always nice to see your name as a winner," a delighted Sabalenka said in press. "I didn’t have some plan. Now I’m 20 years old, and I have my first title."

When Sabalenka—who this week defeated former US Open champion Sam Stosur, ninth-seeded Daria Gavrilova, the resurgent Belinda Bencic and fifth-seeded Julia Goerges—stormed out to a 5-0 lead in just 24 minutes, it was clear that her most formidable opponent would be herself. Her backhand kept Suarez Navarro pinned behind the baseline, to say nothing of her point-ending forehands and serves that occasionally exceeded 110 m.p.h. It was one-way traffic on the Merritt Parkway.

But from that point on, the gap between the two players would begin to close, if not in talent than in games. A crafty veteran, Suarez Navarro’s road to the final could not have been more different, or less strenuous, than Sabalenka’s. The unseeded 29-year-old beat Barbora Strycova in the opening round, and then benefitted from two retirements and a walkover to reach the final despite completing just three sets of tennis.

When Suarez Navarro mustered her first serious challenge to Sabalenka’s serve at 3-4 in the second set—a game after the youngster broke her own serve—it was possible to envision the Spaniard playing as many full sets on Saturday as she had this entire week. She had settled in and began to frustrate Sabalenka with her fine court coverage, spin-heavy shots that visited all areas of the surface and—thanks to the crowd, who wanted to see as much tennis as possible—an unlikely home-court advantage. She broke for 4-4, and a new match had begun.

"It’s always up and down," said Sabalenka about the inner battle she engages with. "You always think that you can be better on the court. But at the same time, you’re like, 'OK, I have to focus on the next point."

But while Sabalenka’s shotmaking may have waned in intensity, her focus remained at its peak. When game was called for Suarez Navarro at 4-4, 40-15, Sabalenka called for a Hawk-Eye review. The replay went her way, and she would go on to break serve with some of her most aggressive backhands, particularly on second-serve returns. Compared to some of the winners Sabalenka struck—27 in all—her knuckleball overhead winner on break point, struck after misjudging the bounce of a lofted Suarez Navarro return, may have been her ugliest shot of the day. But it was also her sweetest.

That is, until she finally closed out Suarez Navarro, and snapped her WTA final losing streak, on her third championship point. After Suarez Navarro played her best point of the day at 40-30 to forced a tension-filled deuce, Sabalenka saved a break point with an unreturned serve. Two points later, it was relief for Sabalenka, who raised her arms high, and soon raised a WTA trophy for the first time.

Where Sabalenka goes from here will be fascinating. On hard courts this summer, she’s already beaten Caroline Wozniacki in Canada, and reached the semifinals of Cincinnati, where she garnered wins over Johanna Konta, Karolina Pliskova, Caroline Garcia and Madison Keys. Given how much she’s played recently, and a potentially tricky first-round opponent in Danielle Collins next week at Flushing Meadows, another breakthrough might be too much to ask.

"I believe in myself even more," said Sabalenka. "We will see at the US Open; I have no pressure on me."

But in a year that’s seen Sabalenka rise from No. 73 to inside the Top 20, it’s worth asking if she has already assumed another title: Belarus’ top threat in the WTA. For even a healthy and motivated Azarenka would have trouble handling a player with this much upside.

"I'm so happy with my first title," said Sabalenka. "You're happy, but at the same time, you have to work more. The next year, I have to do it again."

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