Winning grand slam tournaments was not always the sole objective of being a professional tennis player. Chris Evert, the greatest women’s clay court player of all time, once skipped the French Open for three consecutive years during her peak to play in World Team Tennis. Many frequently demurred on travelling halfway around the world to compete in Australia after a long season. Others decided, simply, that grass is for cows. From the pursuit of money to helping to build up their tours by competing hard across the whole season, tennis players had different priorities and they all acted accordingly.
Sadly for Aryna Sabalenka, tennis has moved on. On Wednesday, she defeated Veronika Kudermetova to win the WTA 500 title in Abu Dhabi, the first notable tournament of the tennis season on either tour. Sabalenka may be the least known top 10 player, but she is the most in-form tennis player in the world.
Her victory in Abu Dhabi was her third straight title and extended her winning streak to 15 matches. Since the end of 2019, she has played in 16 tournaments and won six of them, including top-level WTA 1000 wins in Wuhan and Doha. She is only 22 years old.
In a sport filled with big hitters, Sabalenka is a heavyweight of the genre. Her first serve, although lacking variety, tops out at 120mph. From the baseline, her average groundstroke speeds tower over what the likes of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka generate.
When she first emerged, it often seemed like Sabalenka’s only real goal was to step to the baseline, demolish the ball and then wait to see where on earth it landed. It may be exhilarating to watch a fearless shotmaker at their best, reducing opponents to spectators of their own demise, but it is not sustainable. She briskly found success, rising from 73rd to 11th in 2018 at 20 years old, but she only knew how to succeed when her game was flowing.
Power and passion alone do not consistently win tennis matches. The question surrounding Sabalenka and her potential has always been whether she can pair her weapons with good decision-making. It is not always simple. Some players never learn how to ignore the temptation to constantly obliterate low-percentage shots just because they can.
Over her past 15 matches, Sabalenka’s form has suggested that she is evolving into something slightly more refined. There have been plenty of demolitions along the way but she better understands that she can use her power and weight of shot with nuance. She is firing more returns down the middle and attacking to bigger margins. It was notable that after her triumph in Abu Dhabi, she cited her drop shot and slice as particularly pleasing parts of her game.
There has also always been a question about her composure. The turbulence that sometimes accompanies her tennis was underlined at the 2019 US Open. After losing in the singles, Sabalenka announced a split with her then coach, former ATP player Dmitry Tursunov. A few days later, she posted a dramatic statement to Instagram, written at 11.45pm, addressing their partnership: “He keeps saying ‘I don’t feel that you really need me’. … I REALLY NEED YOU”. She ended the US Open as doubles champion and with him awkwardly posing with her in the trophy pictures. Today, with another year of experience and growth, Sabalenka is far more relaxed about her tennis.
Despite all of the tournaments Sabalenka has won and the prominent scalps she has taken, one frontier remains. Put simply, her grand slam performances are abysmal. She has only reached a fourth round once in her career. Otherwise, her results are as follows: two third rounds, four second rounds and five first round exits.
There are understandable reasons for the failure to produce her best tennis in those events – she has generally been defeated by quality opponents like Ons Jabeur, Victoria Azarenka and Naomi Osaka or crafty players who have easily exposed her inconsistency.
Modern grand slams can also prove difficult for some players as they rise to the top of the game. As the depth in women’s tennis has augmented, lower-ranked players are often inspired in the big moments. While Sabalenka is still trying to figure out her game, a large target has developed on her back.
In recent years, players such as Alexander Zverev and Elina Svitolina have struggled to bring their form from the tour events to the grand slams. The constant questions about their inability to do so followed them across the tour and increased the pressure on the big stage, contributing to a bitter cycle of early losses.
At the Australian Open, one of the tournament’s biggest questions will be whether Sabalenka will finally be able to produce her best performances when it matters, or if a similar barren spell awaits.