If Coco Gauff’s 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4 victory over Aryna Sabalenka in Lexington in August is any indication of what to expect for their second-round clash in Ostrava on Thursday, everyone is in for a treat.
First and foremost, tennis is a game of matchups. It’s part of what makes the sport so thrilling. No two styles are identical, and player games are often a representation of their personality. The Belarusian is as aggressive and intimidating as the roaring tiger tattoo on her left forearm. And while 16-year-old Gauff is still figuring out how she wants to play week in, week out, effort, determination and poise under pressure are a few of her defining attributes, both on and off the court.
Gauff is already one of the quickest, most explosive athletes on tour. But because she defends so incredibly well, she has a tendency to abandon her aggressive game. At least right now, it seems she is far more comfortable scrambling and defending than she is at dictating and controlling the point. But that’s OK in this particular Thursday matchup, because Sabalenka will be the aggressor against anyone.
In Lexington over the summer, Sabalenka found tremendous success hitting behind the speedy teenager. Against a lightning-quick athlete like Gauff—unless the open court is wide open—it’s a smart play.
Knowing Gauff was about to hightail it to her forehand corner, Sabalenka wisely went back to the backhand corner, wrong-footing the American.
If you attack the open court against a premier defender and counterpuncher, you must hit a nearly perfect shot. If you don't, you’re more than likely to get burned, like Gauff did to Sabalenka below with an excellent two-shot pass combination.
Despite the loss, Sabalenka won 51 percent of the total points, which means she simply didn't win the most important ones. If she didn’t commit a whopping 14 double faults, coupled with getting an unacceptable 44 percent of first-serves in play, she probably would have won the match.
According to the oddsmakers, this round of 16 match is a complete toss-up, with both players listed evenly at -115. But with a player of Sabalenka’s caliber, don’t underestimate the importance of the revenge factor. She let the match get away in Lexington, and should very much like to even the score against the youngster. Barring a repeat catastrophic serving performance, expect Sabalenka to edge out the talented teenager.
The Pick: Aryna Sabalenka