Can Aryna Sabalenka Make A Major Breakthrough In 2021?

Aryna Sabalenka at the WTA Abu Dhabi Open

Women’s tennis might just be the most competitive sport in the world at the moment. In the four years since Serena Williams won the 2017 Australian Open, her 23rd and so far final Major, no fewer than nine different women have enjoyed a maiden Grand Slam triumph, with Naomi Osaka being the only one of them to win more than a single Major. However, perhaps the most remarkable statistic in this almost unprecedented period of turmoil at the top of the women’s game is that during it Aryna Sabalenka has been beyond the third round of a Major only once. But given the way the young Belarussian has started 2021 (and indeed ended 2020), that situation may be about to change dramatically this year.

Sabalenka is currently the world’s #1 woman on form, even if her official ranking is still only #9. She has not lost a match on the WTA Tour since continuing her current abysmal record in the Majors at Roland Garros in October, when she lost to Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in the third round. As if embarrassed by that defeat, the latest in a long line of relatively meek capitulations at the four Grand Slam tournaments, she responded by going on a 15-match unbeaten run, during which she has won the last three tournaments that she has entered.

The first two were in Ostrava and Linz before the 2020 women’s season was prematurely ended by Covid, which meant the cancellation of the end-of-season Asian swing. And the third was the Abu Dhabi Open this week, when she was mightily  impressive, particularly in the final against Veronika Kudermetova, the Russian qualifier, which she won easily, 6-2 6-2.

The match against Kudermetova was a classic example, in boxing parlance, of “a good big ‘un beating a good little ‘un”. Indeed, to extend the boxing analogy, Sabalenka looked like a middleweight, or even a light-heavyweight, taking on a featherweight, as she virtually swatted aside the much lighter and far frailer-looking Kudermetova. She lost serve only once, at the start of the second set, and then immediately broke back before roaring on to victory.

All of Sabalenka’s hugely impressive physical attributes were on display in the Abu Dhabi final. At exactly six foot tall, she serves powerfully (even if there is still room for improvement and variation) and her ground strokes are positively Herculean. In particular, she might just have the most powerful forehand in women’s tennis. And as she has gained experience, particularly throughout this mini-imperial phase, she has added greater accuracy to it than was evident in previous seasons.

Thus it remains a tennis mystery as to why the 22-year-old Belarussian has so far only reached the second week of a Slam just once in her career. Indeed, so vast is the difference between her usually impressive form on the regular WTA Tour and her performances in the Majors that it is as if “The Tiger”, as Sabalenka is nicknamed after having the face of a tiger tattooed on her left arm, becomes a Pussycat every time she arrives at a Grand Slam event.

Perhaps the turning point for Sabalenka at the Majors, which set her on her current path of continual underachievement in them, was her loss in the fourth round at the 2018 US Open to Naomi Osaka. Sabalenka probably went into that match as the favourite, after her stunning performances in the run-up to the US Open on the North American hardcourt circuit, performances that were instrumental in her winning the WTA Newcomer of the Year Award later that year. Nevertheless, despite playing well enough to become the only woman at that event to take a set off Osaka, she eventually lost 3-6 6-2 4-6.

Osaka, of course, not only won that Major but the very next one that she entered, in 2019 in Melbourne, and made it a hat-trick of Major titles back in New York in 2020. By contrast, Sabalenka, rather than pushing on from that defeat to Osaka, has actually got worse at the Majors, reaching, at best, only the third round of every Grand Slam tournament that she has competed in since.

Sabalenka’s current form is so good that she surely has every chance of snapping that early-rounds losing streak at the Majors in 2021. Indeed, with less than a month to go before the start of the Australian Open, she is already many pundits’ tip as an outsider for the title. However, given her previously poor record in Majors, it would surely be best if she concentrated on making the second week in Melbourne before daring to have any loftier ambitions.

Of course, Sabalenka is not alone in tennis in taking her time to translate her performances at non-Major events into success at the Majors. Most recently, Alexander Zverev took seemingly an eternity even to reach a Major quarterfinal, but once he had done so he soon went all the way to a Major final, eventually losing the 2020 US Open final to Dominic Thiem in five sets after winning the first two sets.

The suspicion is that Sabalenka will at least emulate Zverev, if not perhaps going one step further, if she can finally overcome her Major hoodoo. She certainly has the game to win a Major. If the forehand is by far her most impressive shot at the moment, that is probably largely because her forehand alone is enough to see off most opponents.

However, having apparently worked hard in the prolonged off-season to improve and vary her game, there was some evidence of that improvement in Abu Dhabi, particularly in two outstanding shots against Kudermetova in the final. The first was a bullet of a backhand down the line that Kudermetova barely saw, let alone reached. And the second was a beautiful, short-angled forehand winner that showed Sabalenka can definitely add some flair and dexterity to her obvious power and physicality.

Given the current state of flux at the top of women’s tennis, a state of flux that has become almost permanent since Serena Williams’s slow and painful decline began four years ago, there is still no dominant woman’s World #1. Ash Barty is the current world #1, but that is largely a hangover of last year’s Covid-decimated season, when there was no play at all for several months, and even now the rankings still largely reflect the status quo from before the pandemic.

Osaka, who is currently ranked #3, and Iga Swiatek, the 2020 French Open winner who is currently ranked only #17, look like the two women who are best placed to dominate in the long run and consistently make Major finals. Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open Champion who still enjoys a protected ranking of #7, can surely challenge them both if she ever regains full fitness.

However, if she cannot do so, it is not impossible that Aryna Sabalenka, the woman who may just be the most powerful hitter of them all, might just replace her as the third member of a women’s “Big Three” in the future.

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