Aryna Sabalenka’s singles performances at Grand Slam is now almost a trope in tennis now.
The 23-year-old has is yet to progress past the fourth round in singles at a Major, and she broke into the top-15 in 2018. She has won 10 WTA titles in 15 finals, won two Grand Slam titles in women’s doubles – 2019 US Open and 2021 Australian Open with Elise Mertens – and has now broken in to the top five in the rankings.
At the ongoing French Open, she was the highest remaining seed when action began on Friday and she went on to lost in the third round in a rollercoaster match. The third seed lost 6-4 2-6 6-0 in a blaze of errors to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a day after the injury-enforced retirement of Ashleigh Barty put the spotlight firmly on her.
It was no one-sides loss either, as the big-hitting Belarusian started strong, stayed focused after dropping a set and came back even stronger to take the second set and force a decider. But in a train wreck of a third set, she committed 17 unforced errors and four double faults to completely collapse.
It was an old pattern: the margin between winners and unforced errors having the final say as frustration made things worse. Yet, it felt like a surprise as she was the third seed with a 27-7 record in 2021 and 11-2 on clay this time. Was it the pressure of being the new top seed? Or just the same old erratic Sabalenka?
This after having a solid lead-up to the Major with her first clay and biggest career title at Madrid Open and reaching the final in Stuttgart. With her form and seeding, she was billed as one of the contenders and was expected to break her deep-run drought at Roland Garros. But once again, she exited early.
In the current unpredictable climate of women’s tennis, almost nothing is a surprise and expectations fluctuate. Yet, Sabalenka’s performances at Majors continue to confound.
Despite her considerable firepower in play and consistency on tour, she has somehow never managed to click at Grand Slam level, not even once. Sabalenka definitely has the weapons: raw pace and power, solid serve and speed, experience of top-10 wins. It seems to be a matter of being in the moment to bring it together when it counts.
Admittedly she is still young and has played every Major for just three years now. But to reach the fourth round at Major only twice as a top 20 player is definitely an anomaly in a time of unseeded champions and open draws.
Sabalenka at Grand Slams (singles)
Sabalenka at Grand Slams (doubles)
What exactly is holding her back from giving her best at this level?
Some of these have had to do with the opponents she has faced. At the Australian Open earlier this year, she was up against Serena Williams for the very first time and went down in a three-set thriller that could have gone either way till the end. At the US Open last year, she was the fifth seed but came up against a resurgent Victoria Azarenka– the eventual finalist – in the second round and was dismissed in straight sets. She has also had losses to unexpected players such as Carla Suarez Navarro and Yulia Putintseva as a top-15 seed in the first rounds, even on the hard courts she is most proficient on.
A lot of it has to do with her own go-big-or-go-home style. When she strikes right, it’s a cracking winner; when she doesn’t, it’s a glaring error: very little of her game percentage tennis. It also has to do with just how much of a mental game tennis is; how resilient and consistent players have to be crack the Grand Slam code.
But it was not always like that. In 2018, still a relative newcomer at the level, the 26th seed had reached the fourth round of the US Open – still her joint-best Slam performance – and stunned fifth seed Petra Kvitova. She went down to eventual champion Naomi Osaka, but was the only player to take a set off her in the tournament.
Yet, after three years at the top tier of WTA tennis and her experience, not being able to reduce the error count under pressure does raise questions.
Sabalenka has been in good run of form over the last year. She has lifted two titles in 2021 and reached a career high of world No 4 in May. In the disrupted 2020 season, she won a joint tour-leading three titles: Doha (beating Kvitova in final), Ostrava (beating Azarenka) and Linz (beating Mertens in final).
After her breakthrough season in 2018 when she went from world No 78 to world No 11 and won the WTA Newcomer of the Year award. Her top-100 breakthrough and first career trophy – a WTA 125K series in Mumbai – along with a Fed Cup performance that made the world take notice, came in 2017.
A player’s success in tennis could be seen independent of good Grand Slam runs. Consistency on tour is incredibly tough to achieve, too. There’s time yet for Sabalenka to make her mark at Majors, given her constant rise on the tour. She is primed for a deep run sooner rather than later.
Till then, tennis watchers continue to wonder: what happens to Sabalenka at Grand Slams?
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