Can Aryna Sabalenka Add Roland Garros to her Trophy Cabinet?

Aryna Sabalenka in action at the WTA Rome Open.

After a grueling three-setter against Karolina Muchova at the French Open last season, Aryna Sabalenka had yet again fallen at the semifinal hurdle on the Grand Slam stage. It was a frustrating afternoon which seemed to be turning into somewhat of an unwelcome pattern for the Belarusian. It marked her fifth Slam out of the last eight where she came just one match from the final.

A year is a long time, though. Fast forward twelve months and she has doubled her Grand Slam tally in Melbourne and earned a runner’s-up medal at New York in the US Open.

Her memories in Paris aren’t overly positive though. Last year’s semifinal was the first time in six attempts that she managed to get past Round 3. You sense though that the former World #1 has considerably grown in the last 18 months and is a different proposition to the player who used to struggle so greatly on the clay.

What she said

Looking ahead to the tournament, she said on the official Roland Garros website, “I’m super happy to be back. I love playing here, and I had a couple of good results in Madrid and Rome. Feel quite confident going to Roland-Garros. I’m just super excited, as always, to start playing here.

I’m focusing on myself, not own goals, but on things I have to improve and get better at so I have a chance against Iga on the clay court and especially here at Roland-Garros.“

Sabalenka has enjoyed a pretty solid clay court campaign up until now. She struggled in Stuggart losing early to Vondrousova. Although, with personal events of the court that could be understood.

In Madrid, she came into her element gaining a pair of comeback wins against the in-form Danielle Collins (4-6 6-4 6-3) and Elena Rybakina (1-6 7-5 7-6). She would lose in the final to Iga Swiatek in all-time classic 7-5 4-6 7-6(7).

Rome would be the real test, though. Due to the altitude of the Madrid courts, they play differently from the traditional red clay and aren’t representative of what to expect at Roland Garros. The Rome courts are a better gauge.

She was excellent in Italy up until the final, losing just two sets overall against quality opponents such as Elina Svitolina, Jelena Ostapenko, and Collins. However, in the final Swiatek hammered her 6-2 6-3 proving on the clay the Pole has Sabalenka’s number.

Now, we are at Roland Garros.

A look ahead to Roland Garros

Sabalenka’s draw is relatively fuss-free until the semifinal stage. Her probable line-up is Paula Badosa Round 3, Madison Keys Round 4, Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinal, Elena Rybakina in the semifinal, and Swiatek in the final.

Up until Rybakina, you have to say that run suits her. The likes of Badosa, Keys, and Sakkari are all aggressive powerful players. They like to have time on the ball and strike it well and dictate on their own terms. Unlucky for them that’s also Sabalenka’s checkmate.

We saw how Sabalenka struggled against Coco Gauff at last year’s US Open. The American played a more defensively tricky game, which ultimately frustrated Sabalenka.

Elena Rybakina, of course, is the mouth-watering tie. This season they are one win apiece. However, with the fitness of the Kazakhstani unclear you would have to say Sabalenka goes into that one favorite. If she meets Swiatek that’s when it gets tough.

Since winning in Madrid last season, she trails 5-1 in the previous six head-to-heads. Sabalenka’s power is unmatchable, but that becomes slightly muted on the clay courts in comparison to grass and hardcourt. Swiatek’s movement and counter-punching are the best we’ve seen in a long time and it’s that profile that Sabalenka often struggles against (see back to Coco Gauff).

Sabalenka is definitely in with a shout of winning her first Roland Garros title. If Swiatek doesn’t manage, then she is the next favorite in my opinion. However, the World #1 seems invincible on the Paris clay, and it will take a massive effort and considerable improvement to knock her from her perch.

Main Photo Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports


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