Some things in tennis will most likely remain unchanged even in these disorientating times. Aryna Sabalenka playing tennis at a breakneck pace, with power and courage, is one of them.
The soon-to-be World No.7 sealed a perfect week in the Emirati capital by winning the inaugural WTA Abu Dhabi Open, beating the hopeless Veronika Kudermetova 6-2 6-2 in the final. She completed the rout in 66 minutes. It is Sabalenka’s ninth WTA career title. Looking at this tournament, who will stop the ruthless Belorussian?
2021 WTA Abu Dhabi Open
Sabalenka Extends Winning Run To 15 Matches
Last week, the discussion revolved around Sofia Kenin—the reigning Australian Open champion–who was the top seed at this curtain-raiser event in Abu Dhabi and in many eyes a favorite to walk away with the title. There was also talk of Ons Jabeur defying the odds and crowning her burgeoning career with a first title on Arab soil. The usual suspects–Elina Svitolina (twice a champion in Dubai), Elena Rybakina, and Garbine Mugurza–were also in contention after playing with distinction in a pandemic-hit 2020 season.
Then there was Aryna Sabalenka, who warded off the list of pre-tournament favorites. Far from it, the Belorussian was always going to be the real deal in these parts. She ended the 2020 season in grand manner, winning back-to-back titles in Ostrava and Linz, peaking at a career-high ranking of No.9.
The week in Ostrava is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, Sabalenka overturned deficits in matches against Cori Gauff and Sara Sorribes Tormo–the latter which she trailed 0-6 0-4–before winning by the bizarre scoreline 0-6 6-4 6-0 to advance. Secondly, her final opponent, Victoria Azarenka, was unhealthy in the championship match, struggling with dizziness and neck issues. A lucky break we call it, but in tennis you make your own luck.
22nd of Oct '20 – Sabalenka is down 2-5 to Gauff in the decider, wins in a TB
23rd of Oct '20 – Sabalenka is down 0-6 0-4 to Sorribes Tormo, takes the next 12 games
These two victories kickstarted her now 15-match winning streak. The importance of a single point, game.
— Damian Kust (@LWOSdamiankust) January 13, 2021
Sabalenka Last Tasted Defeat At French Open Last Fall
In fact, she has not lost since last year’s French Open, where she fell to Ons Jabeur in third round. Sabalenka has now forgotten what losing is like. And just like an angry terrier hunting its vermin, she sunk her teeth into the Tunisian to avenge that Roland Garros defeat in another third round meeting at the WTA Abu Dhabi Open. Beforehand, she had beaten Polona Hercog and Ajla Tomljanovic.
Sabalenka’s toughest bout came in the quarterfinals where she fought fire with fire, fending off the power-hitting Elena Rybakina, firing a total of 30 winners. She won 6-4 4-6 6-3, the only time she dropped a set during the week.
Her meeting with Maria Sakkari in the semifinal was expected to be eventful. The Greek tamed Sofia Kenin in the previous round and looked in imperious form, smacking the ball cleanly and with accuracy. But Sabalenka’s confidence is at all-time high, and she dispatched Sakkari in two easy sets, 6-3 6-2, in just 57 minutes.
Can Sabalenka Break Through in Melbourne?
Following her 15th straight match win, Sabalenka is now considered a genuine contender to break new ground at the Australian Open next month. Her steep rise in the last three months has taken her to a new career-high ranking of World No.7. She is now among the top five women who could win the Australian Open, according to oddsmakers.
There are four weeks between now until the big battleground in Melbourne. With no more tournaments running this January, the 22-year-old woman from Minsk is undoubtedly the biggest winner. Confidence is sky high, and her game has been fine-tuned and is firing on all cylinders. That, coupled with her competitors’ lack of sharpness and match fitness, could work in her favor.
If she can get through the first week in Melbourne unscathed, maybe this could be her time.
Special Mention To Anastasia Gasanova
Before last week, Anastasia Gasanova had never qualified for the main draw of WTA tour-level event. The 21-year-old Russian, ranked at No. 292 in the world, saved a match point in the final round of qualifying to book her spot in the main draw for the first time. There, she beat Mona Barthel 6-2 6-4 for a maiden win, before pulling off the week’s biggest shock. In her first match against a player ranked inside the Top 100, let alone the Top 10, she stunned Karolina Pliskova by a mirror scoreline of her opening round.
First win against a Top 100 player! 🤩
— wta (@WTA) January 9, 2021
Main Photo from Getty.