One school of tactical tennis wisdom stresses the need to keep the ball in the court, to make the opponent play, to sustain rallies, maintain patience and always opt for consistency. This is one reason, for example, why a great many players will win the coin toss and choose to receive serve.
But if you’ve been taught to deploy your weapons, why dare be so reactive? As one tennis legend once remarked, “It’s a great feeling to walk up to that baseline and start off the match with an ace right down the T.” The speaker was Pete Sampras, known to kick off matters precisely that way. Open with your best evidence and commence the process of demoralizing your opponent. Why adjust when you can dominate?
Tuesday at the Mutua Madrid Open, Sampras’ prosecutor-like credo came to life when fifth-seeded Aryna Sabalenka comprehensively dismantled American Jessica Pegula, 6-1, 6-2. Speaking with Prakash Amritraj after the match on the Tennis Channel DraftKings desk, Sabalenka said, “I’m really happy with the level today.”
There was more than a trace of intrigue surrounding this matchup. The two have each had excellent years, Sabalenka last week reaching the final in Stuttgart, Pegula in April attaining a career-high ranking of No. 32. They’d split their previous two matches, both played last year: Pegula the victor at 'Cincinnati in New York', Sabalenka winning at Roland Garros.
But just about the only thing Sabalenka lost today was the coin toss. Pegula opted to receive. Perhaps she hoped that Sabalenka was not quite in high gear. Perhaps Pegula figured her crisp groundstrokes and excellent movement would give her the chance to dig her way into rallies and elicit errors from the streaky Sabalenka.
As boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Sabalenka opened with two straight aces. She won the first six points, and though Pegula held for 1-all, it was clear from the start that Sabalenka was thoroughly in control. From one point to another, she ran Pegula corner to corner, sending missiles from each side, firing big serves, drilling deep and hard returns. Sabalenka attributed her fine play today to the work she’s put in to improve her movement. “When you can move well,” she said, “you can hit hard.”
To watch Sabalenka in full flight is remarkable. The temptation is to think she is, to use a familiar phrase, “going for it.” But is that accurate when a player has been taught and trained to hit the ball a certain way? Did Monica Seles “go for it” or did she merely execute, as surely as a Sampras flat serve or a Serena Williams backhand return?
Meanwhile, the court looked like a hill for Pegula. The first set had flown by in 25 minutes. Versus a free swinger like Sabalenka, the hope is to weather the storm and keep the ball in play just long and proficiently enough to extract a few errors and chip away at her confidence. Once upon a time, this was a reasonably effective clay court gambit.
But in the contemporary tennis world, clay court tennis tilts less around these trench-like maneuvers. The name of the game is racquet head speed—the kind of finishing power that dictates rallies wire-to-wire. Again and again, Sabalenka barely gave Pegula time to think. Up against such power and depth, Pegula’s flat strokes began to betray her. With Pegula serving at 2-all, Sabalenka broke serve, and at 2-4, earned the insurance break with a net cord winner. Serving at 5-2, 30-30, Sabalenka tore two pages from the Sampras playbook: back-to-back aces.
Next up for Sabalenka is Elise Mertens, upset winner today over third-seeded Simona Halep. They’ve played one another six times, Sabalenka taking four. The two are also doubles partners, earlier this year winning the Australian Open. It will be interesting to see how Mertens seeks to apply pressure to an opponent she knows so well, likely with a wide range of tactics. “On the court, we are opponent and it’s different,” said Sabalenka. “Off the court, we are friends. She’s a great player.”
As for Sabalenka, her response to pressure boils down to two words: keep swinging.