Qatar Open: Aryna Sabalenka’s journey from personal tragedy takes a heartwarming upturn with win over Petra Kvitova

Aryna Sabalenka ended with 21 winners to just 15 unforced errors, but the most crucial difference-maker of the day was how she repeatedly redirected Kvitova’s firepower

Musab Abid March 01, 2020 13:37:49 IST
Qatar Open: Aryna Sabalenka’s journey from personal tragedy takes a heartwarming upturn with win over Petra Kvitova
  • The 21-year-old Sabalenka was so fearless with her shot-making in the Doha final that you wondered whether she even knew she was facing one of the greatest offensive powerhouses of the modern era

  • The Belarusian ended with 21 winners to just 15 unforced errors, but the most crucial difference-maker of the day was how she repeatedly redirected Kvitova’s firepower

  • Sabalenka’s love for living on the edge is what makes her such a mercurial player, and it explains the up-and-down nature of most of her matches

When Aryna Sabalenka was losing to Carla Suarez Navarro in the first round of the Australian Open, she was putting on a show – but of the unwanted kind. Sabalenka racked up an astronomical 58 unforced errors in just two sets, making you wonder whether this was even a professional match, let alone a Grand Slam one.

58 errors over three sets is a very high number. Over two sets? It’s just bananas. By the end, it was hard to look away, as ugly as the tennis was; there was almost a perverse pleasure in trying to guess where her next error was going to come from, or what new way she’d find to gift a point to her opponent.

But those who had been following Sabalenka’s journey knew that her outstandingly poor performance hadn’t occurred in isolation. The fact that she missed so often – and so wildly – in that match, had more than a little to do with the sudden passing of her father a month earlier.

Sergey had introduced his daughter to the sport when she was six and had been a mentor for her throughout her adult life. But now he was gone at the young age of 43, and Aryna didn’t know whether she had it in her to go through the grind of the tour. Just showing up on the courts was an achievement at the start of the season.

In that context, her 6-3, 6-3 win over Petra Kvitova to win the Qatar Open is a moment in time she will savour forever. While it is ironical that arguably the biggest title of her career has come just two months after the biggest tragedy of her life, the triumph is a continuation of the path that Sergey had set her on.

"It was a long journey here and I put everything on tennis," said Sabalenka after the match. "I was actually only playing tennis and focusing on tennis and nothing else. And I think I gave everything for tennis. And I just lost my dad in the pre-season and he was my biggest motivation, and I'm doing it for him."

Sergey fully believed in his daughter’s abilities, often telling her she was destined to be the World No 1. That belief has clearly permeated to Aryna, reinforced by her thunderous performance against Kvitova. The 21-year-old was so fearless with her shot-making in the Doha final that you wondered whether she even knew she was facing one of the greatest offensive powerhouses of the modern era.

The Czech was the one looking to find the winner at the first opportunity, but it was Sabalenka who had more conviction in her shots and more sharpness in her execution. She stood her ground no matter how hard Kvitova hit and responded with plenty of pace herself – while still being relatively accurate.

The Belarusian ended with 21 winners to just 15 unforced errors, but the most crucial difference-maker of the day was how she repeatedly redirected Kvitova’s firepower and forced her older opponent to come up with physics-defying shots to win points. Kvitova managed to do that a few times, but more often than not she came up short.

“I respect [Kvitova], I knew she is a big fighter. I knew she would bring everything she has on this final,” said Sabalenka. "I was really focused on each point, and played every point like the last point and like I'm actually losing.”

To play every point like it is the last is an unusual approach to take, but Sabalenka has made a habit out of it. After her match against Victoria Azarenka at last year’s US Open, Sabalenka had expressed a similar eagerness to lay it all on the line for every single point. It worked back then, and it worked on Saturday too.

Sabalenka’s love for living on the edge is what makes her such a mercurial player, and it explains the up-and-down nature of most of her matches. You never know whether she is going to make the ball explode off the turf or let her mind self-combust out of anger, which is why her fans have learned to temper their expectations whenever she enters a tournament. From the looks of it, the woman herself has learned not to aim too high.

"I couldn't really expect the title for the first time in Doha,” Sabalenka said, reminding us that she had never played in this cash-rich event before. “I'm really happy, it feels so special to me."

‘Special’ is a word that has often been associated with Sabalenka. Notwithstanding the unpredictability of her game, the Belarusian’s ability to generate power from any kind of position is something that has rarely been seen in the women’s game. She may seem unsure of her footing as she covers the baseline and might look awkward while hitting the ball, but she still somehow manages to push her opponents back with her sheer weight of shot.

When she thrashed Simona Halep 6-2, 6-2 in Adelaide earlier this year, it made you wonder why she wasn’t in the top 5 already. But when Sabalenka faced Halep again a month later (in the Dubai quarterfinal), she made just enough errors to allow the Romanian back into the contest, and eventually run away with it. Sabalenka’s game – and career in general so far – has lacked balance, and that is the single biggest thing that has held her back.

Could her run in Doha be the point from where she starts putting in more consistent results? This is only the second time Sabalenka has won a title outside China (she has won four in the country), so it’s certainly a sign that she is expanding her geographic horizons.

But perhaps a bigger sign of her growth is that this is the first time she has beaten a series of high-quality opponents while they were still fresh and injury-free – as opposed to stumbling towards the finish line at the fag end of the season (like they were during her two Wuhan triumphs). She is showing, finally, that she has what it takes to challenge for the biggest of titles when it actually means something.

Sabalenka’s father thought she would be World No. 1 one day. And while that is still some way off, it is heart-warming to know that the 21-year-old is back to producing effective tennis again.

A month ago she was putting on a cringe-worthy show against Suarez Navarro that stood out for its ugliness. But in Doha this week, she put on a show that was spectacular – and inspiring – for all the right reasons.

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