Summer of Sabalenka: What’s behind the Belarusian’s rise?

Hannah Wilks in Tennis News 18 Aug 2018
  • Aryna Sabalenka is the newest sensation in women's tennis 
  • The 20-year-old Belarusian has beaten four top-10 players in June-August 2018 and is poised to break into the top 25
  • What is the story of Sabalenka's stunning rise?
Aryna Sabalenka (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA)

Aryna Sabalenka is the newest sensation on the WTA Tour – what’s the source of her sudden success?

Poised to break into the top 25 for the first time after collecting four wins over top-10 players in the past two months, Cincinnati semifinalist Aryna Sabalenka is definitely one to watch for the remainder of the 2018 season and beyond. Here’s what you need to know about the fast-rising 20-year-old from Belarus.

Casual fans might not have known Sabalenka’s name before this year, or even before the last few months. But the Belarusian appeared on just about everybody’s list of WTA players to watch during the 2018 season – our own Andrew Hendrie even included her in his predicted year-end WTA Tour top 10, and while Sabalenka might not quite make it that far, she’s headed in the right direction: Starting the year at world no. 78, she’s projected to be ranked at least world no. 25 when the new rankings are released on Monday thanks to her run to the semifinals of the Premier-5 Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.

Sabalenka in action in Eastbourne (photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA)
Sabalenka, who hails from Minsk and started playing tennis at the age of six, raised eyebrows all around the tennis world in 2017, primarily with her performances during Belarus’s surprise run to the Fed Cup final. Sabalenka took singles wins over Michaella Krajicek of the Netherlands, Viktorija Golubic of Switzerland and US Open champion Sloane Stephens and while Belarus ultimately lost out to the USA in the final, the fearless, powerful tennis that Sabalenka demonstrated under pressure and on these big stages made tennis fans and pundits around the world sit up and take notice.

The Belarusian also made her first WTA Tour final, stretching Maria Sharapova to three sets in Tianjin, to finish the year world no. 78 after claiming the title at the WTA 125k in Mumbai.

The stage seemed set for Sabalenka to start really making her mark – but the first half of the year was a bit of a slow burn for the Belarusian, who made a second WTA Tour final at the International in Lugano  and reached the third round of Indian Wells, breaking into the top 50 but without delivering any truly eye-catching results.

The crucial ingredient seems to have been the addition of Dmitry Tursunov to Sabalenka’s coaching team. Sabalenka split with former coach Khalil Ibramov amicably at the end of 2017 and spent some time working with Magnus Norman, the well-regarded former mentor of Stan Wawrinka and Robin Soderling, at his academy. 

Best team ??????

A post shared by Aryna Sabalenka (@sabalenka_aryna) on

But after Sabalenka’s clay-court season culminated in a 2-6, 1-6 defeat to Kiki Bertens in the first round of the French Open, she began working with Tursunov. Winner of seven ATP World Tour titles during his career, ranked as high as world no. 20 and known for his sense of humour, Tursunov retired in 2017 after years of battling injury and almost immediately started coaching. Initially working with Elena Vesnina, Tursunov and Sabalenka teamed up ahead of the grass-court season - and the results have been impressive.  

Sabalenka in Montreal (Minos Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
A quarterfinalist in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and a first-round loser in Mallorca, Sabalenka’s breakthrough came at the Nature Valley International in Eastbourne, the prestigious Premier-level event which immediately precedes Wimbledon, Ranked world no. 45 at the time, Sabalenka won five three-set matches in a row to reach the final, beating Sachia Vickery, Julia Goerges, Elise Mertens, Agnieszka Radwanska and scoring her first top-10 win over Karolina Pliskova. She lost to Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets, but served for both of them and altogether made an indelible impression with her aggressive, fearless tennis. 

That high was followed by an immediate low as Sabalenka lost her next two matches, unlucky to draw Mihaela Buzarnescu in the first round of Wimbledon and feeling the pressure of expectations as she went out to world no. 258 Maria Sanchez in San Jose. But once Sabalenka snapped that losing streak with a win over qualifier Ana Bogdan in Montreal, it all seemed to come together again. She scored the second top-10 win of her career over Caroline Wozniacki at the Rogers Cup, and although she lost to Mertens in the next round, Sabalenka picked up right where she left off in Cincinnati this week, beating Johanna Konta before collecting back-to-back top-10 wins over Caroline Garcia and Karolina Pliskova. Against Madison Keys on Stadium Court in the quarterfinals, in the biggest match of her career, Sabalenka outhit the American – one of the biggest hitters on the WTA Tour – for a 6-3, 6-4 victory in front of a stunned crowd.

That is exactly what Sabalenka’s game is: Stunning. Tall, strong and most importantly audacious, Sabalenka possesses the kind of power that can blast anyone off the court – just check out this reel of the 64 winners she hit to beat Wozniacki in Montreal. 

But for such a powerful player, she moves surprisingly well, attacks the net and most significantly, knows how to build a point. If Sabalenka in Eastbourne was sometimes seemingly just closing her eyes and swinging at everything, over the past couple of weeks the 20-year-old has been visibly thinking on the court: Constructing rallies, working her opponent out of position and waiting – albeit mainly not very long – for the right moment to unleash the heavy power. Sabalenka’s best run yet might end in Cincinnati at the hands of world no. 1 Simona Halep in the semifinals, but the tennis she’s played over the past few weeks has established beyond doubt that there’s more – much more – to come from her in the future.

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Summer of Sabalenka: What’s behind the Belarusian’s rise?

Poised to break into the top 25 for the first time after collecting four wins over top-10 players in the past two months, Aryna Sabalenka is the newest sensation on the WTA Tour – what’s the source of her sudden success?

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