What did Aryna Sabalenka learn in 2020?
“I have to be focused from the first point and my emotions have to all be in one place so I don't lose my mind,” the Belarusian said, with her customarily blithe honesty, after her 6-2, 6-2 win over Victoria Azarenka in the final of the J&T Banka Ostrava Open. “Hopefully I’ll continue to find more solutions next year.”
On Sunday, Sabalenka found all of the solutions she needed, to her own game and her opponent’s. Instead of blowing hot and cold, the way she often does, Sabalenka began at a high level—“I hit a crazy passing shot on the first point, and it was a great start for me”—and stayed there for the entire match. Instead of going for all-out winners and overhitting, she patiently increased her power from one shot to the next before trying to end the points. Instead of letting Azarenka get the first strike in and dictate the emotional tenor of the match, the way she did when she lost badly to her at the US Open last month, Sabalenka commanded the rallies from the opening shot on.
Most of all, according to Sabalenka, she was ready to run.
“After our US Open match, I sort of knew what to expect coming into this one, that she was going to move me around the court,” Sabalenka said. “It was going to be long rallies and I was going to have to move really well to win these points. I prepared myself well for this match, and it didn't surprise me.”
Sabalenka rolled through the first set and broke serve early in the second. At that point, Azarenka began to end points as quickly as she could, and called for a trainer. She staggered her way to finish line and said later that she had been hit by a migraine the previous day. But none of that should take anything away from Sabalenka’s performance. She had clearly established her superiority before Azarenka showed signs of distress, and she was able to keep her composure down the stretch against a compromised opponent. Azarenka would rub her head after one point, and then fire a winner on the next one, but Sabalenka shrugged it off and closed the match out.
She also closed out an extraordinary week. In the second round, she came back from a 2-5 deficit in the third set to beat Coco Gauff. In the next round, she one-upped herself by spotting Sara Sorrbes Tormo a 6-0, 4-0 lead before winning 12 straight games. If that wasn't enough, she also won the doubles title.
“After some of the tough matches I had, I felt less pressure going into the others,” Sabalenka said. “I was able to play more freely, and I knew I could come back no matter what. Matches like the ones I played this week helped me be more consistent and focused.”
With the singles trophy in hand, Sabalenka thanked Dieter Kindlmann, who she promoted from hitting partner to coach this summer. “What a journey it’s been,” she told him. Sabalenka had dedicated this season to her father, Sergey, who passed away at just 44 last November. After struggling for most of 2019, the 22-year-old stabilized in 2020. She won a title in Qatar before the pandemic, and now this one in Ostrava.
Even better was the way Sabalenka won this week. She won with patience, with persistence, and with belief when she probably didn’t have a good reason to believe. She won with shape and safety built into her shots, and without having to hit all-or-nothing winners into the corners.
We’ve seen Sabalenka finish a season on a high note before; whether she’s in Asia or Europe, she loves the fall season. We’ve also seen her fail to stay at that high level the next year, or match her results at the majors. But if she can, as she said, have “all her emotions in one place,” so she doesn’t “lose her mind” in 2021, she’ll be off to a good start.
In Ostrava, Sabalenka played the type of tennis many of us have long hoped to see from her. In the Cologne final, Alexander Zverev did the same in his equally convincing, 6-2, 6-1 win over Diego Schwartzman.
The title was Zverev’s second in as many weeks in the German city. He went 8-0 there in total, and in the semifinals on Saturday he avenged his loss to Jannik Sinner at Roland Garros.
“It’s getting better,” Zverev said after the final. “I think we’re going to be on top of the game very soon.”
We’ll have to wait and see about that, but Zverev is 17-3 since the ATP reopened in August. The most memorable of those three defeats came in the US Open final, of course, but the disappointment of that day must feel as if it’s a little farther in the rearview mirror for him after today.
Schwartzman had to go three sets in the quarterfinal and semifinals, and the effort showed in the final. The Argentine usually sinks his teeth into a match eventually, but not this time. Instead of a back-and-forth battle, it was one-way traffic, as Zverev gained confidence with virtually every swing. By the end, any ball that struck his strings stood a good chance of going for a winner.
In that sense, Zverev’s victory was promising in a different way from Sabalenka’s. Where she won by dialing back on the aggression and maintaining her consistency, he won by going in the opposite direction. He left his normal, safe game behind and let the ball fly.
Fall tennis is not the same as spring and summer tennis, and Cologne and Ostrava are not Melbourne Park and Wimbledon. But for the 23-year-old Zverev and the 22-year-old Sabalenka, the potential to do better things on bigger stages remains. They have a little less to learn than they did at the start of 2020.