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Can Aryna Sabalenka battle past the burden of expectations?

Can Aryna Sabalenka battle past the burden of expectations?

The Belarusian, predicted for a Grand Slam breakthrough in 2019, has slumped so far.

Twelve months ago, Aryna Sabalenka kicked off her summer hard-court campaign at the WTA Tour stop in San Jose, Calif., and lost in the first round of the qualifying event. She returned to the tournament this year ranked No. 10 in the world and seeded second. 

In between appearances, she won the first three singles titles of her career and shot up the rankings, leading many to predict a Grand Slam breakthrough was imminent. However, that hasn’t been the case. While she’s been able to maintain her lofty place in the standings, she’s also suffered a number of inexplicable losses in 2019. 

As the US Open approaches, will the Belarusian—back on her best surface—handle the weight of expectations and solidify her status as a contender for the final major of the year?

Her summer campaign got off to a solid start. In her first match in San Jose, she faced CoCo Vandeweghe, who made her season debut at the tournament after missing the whole year to date due to a foot injury. The two had met each other once before, back in 2017 when Vandeweghe had made her own Top-10 breakthrough. The American won that match-up in the Fed Cup finals in straight sets, but the circumstances were completely different this time around.

Sabalenka's summer campaign got off to a solid start. (AP)

After racing to a 5-1 lead, Sabalenka was pushed by Vandeweghe as the world No. 636 won two games in a row to make matters interesting. Vandeweghe, who obviously had nothing to lose in this match, turned up the heat on her groundstrokes to put the pressure on her higher-ranked opponent. Sabalenka weathered that storm, then managed to close out a fairly straightforward second set to clinch the win and move on to the next round.

It’s a good start to the last quarter of the year, and could be just what she needs to right the ship. This was Sabalenka’s first appearance since an opening-round loss at Wimbledon to Magdalena Rybarikova, ranked No. 139 in the world. The grass courts weren’t that kind to the big-hitting Belarusian; aside from a quarterfinal run in Eastbourne, she was upset in her opening match on two other occasions, falling to 28th-ranked Su-Wei Hsieh in Birmingham and to Destanee Aiava in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Rankings-wise, that has been Sabalenka’s worst loss of the season as Aiava was outside of the top 200 at the time.

2019 started perfectly for Sabalenka, though, as she won the title in Shenzhen, China—her third in five months—bringing her closer to the Top 10. At the Australian Open, where she was on the shortlist of title contenders, she fell in the third round to the American teenager Amanda Anisimova. She did manage to leave Melbourne with a consolation prize of sorts: an appearance in the Top 10 for the first time.

Can the 21-year-old make a major breakthrough at the US Open? (AP)

The next several months saw her ranking fluctuate between a career-high No. 9 and 11, with more surprises along the way. The ensuing hard-court tournaments were a series of ups and downs, while the clay—which negates some of her powerful game—was a near washout. She entered the French Open with some momentum generated by a semifinal showing in Strasbourg right before the tournament, but any positive feelings from that were wiped away early in Paris when she lost to Anisimova for the second time during the year at a major.

Surprise upsets and flashes of brilliance have been part of the journey for the 21-year-old so far this year. With her high-risk game comes the opportunity for huge rewards, but there might be more pitfalls along the way.

If anything, the match against Vandeweghe encapsulated the types of situations she has found herself in over the year as the favorite most of the time when she’s taking the court. This time, though, she handled the pressure perfectly, regaining control of the match against a veteran opponent.

At any hard-court tournament, Sabalenka will be counted among the contenders for the top prize. Managing those expectations will make the difference on whether or not she emerges as the champion at the end of the week—and solidifies her place among the game’s elite.