When Victoria Azarenka first rose to prominence around a decade ago, she was referred to in some circles as Maria Sharapova 2.0. Azarenka seemed to be in the same mould as the Russian star – the big backhand and bigger shriek were both in place – but with better movement.
As the years rolled on, the comparison started looking less and less apt. The Belarusian worked harder on her defense and consistency than anything else as she climbed up the rankings ladder, and eventually, she turned from an aggressive ball-basher into a speedy counterpuncher.
Was Azarenka reminded of that early career comparison in her first round match at the US Open? The woman she was facing, Aryna Sabalenka, was from Belarus too and screamed like a banshee on every shot too. Most importantly, she played like an advanced version of Sharapova too – and to a greater degree than Azarenka ever did.
This was the first meeting between the two countrywomen, but you wouldn’t have guessed that from the smooth, symmetrical ball-striking that they put on show. Dressed in identical black-and-purple Nike outfits, Azarenka and Sabalenka settled into eye-catching patterns very early into the match. Maybe it’s because they have been doubles partners in the past, but the two of them seemed to mirror each other’s games; they both constantly looked for the down-the-line changeup off either wing, and both took big cuts on the return to send it hard and deep down the middle.
But it was Azarenka who was just that little bit better at everything in the first half of the match. Despite being outgunned in the raw power sweepstakes, she was just as quick to take charge of points as Sabalenka.
Using her deep return and on-the-rise forehand effectively, Azarenka went a set and a break up in almost no time. It helped, of course, that Sabalenka couldn’t control her serve or her groundstrokes with any degree of confidence; almost every good shot from the younger Belarusian was followed by an unforced error.
But Sabalenka has slowly regained her clean ball-striking form this year, and in this match too she took a while to find the right balance between aggression and recklessness. Once she did, the quality of her tennis went into orbit.
Azarenka didn’t do much wrong after establishing that 6-3, 2-0 lead. In fact, she didn’t play any different after that as she did before it; her level remained pretty much the same throughout the match. It was on the other side of the net where all the upheaval took place.
Sabalenka has always possessed tremendous point-ending power; that was what caught everyone’s attention right off the bat two years ago. But 2019 had been a difficult year, as she failed to reach a single final from February to June. Her seemingly unstoppable march to the top echelon of the sport had hit a huge and inexplicable speed bump.
The American summer hardcourt season had brought some relief, as she made the final in San Jose and briefly looked like her 2018 self in Cincinnati. But that still didn’t prepare us for the onslaught she produced from the middle of the match against Azarenka.
The patterns remained the same, but the pace and accuracy from Sabalenka’s side went several notches up. The 21-year-old got the break back at 0-2 with some steady play, and went on an absolute tear after that.
Responding to every good Azarenka shot with an even better one, Sabalenka started racking up winners like it was child’s play. She generated incredible depth off the return, opened up the court with her sharp-angled crosscourt forehand, and used the down-the-line backhand to devastating effect. Azarenka, who herself was hitting the ball crisply, had absolutely no answer to Sabalenka’s out-of-nowhere increase in level.
“I was getting crazier with every point, wondering why I couldn’t control anything on this court,” Sabalenka said later. “From there, I started to control my emotions, play each point like it’s the last one of the match and try to make it interesting for her.”
She certainly put in an awful lot of effort to ‘make it interesting’ for Azarenka. And if playing a point like it’s the last one of the match means going for broke on every shot, then Sabalenka is bound to have plenty of match-point heartaches in the future.
But the truly ‘crazy’ thing was that she didn’t miss much even though she was going for broke. It seemed like she was playing a very risky match, but how can something be called risky if it works every single time?
“It was a really high level today… I forgot everything and stayed focused on each shot. I didn’t think about anything else, and maybe that’s why it felt like every point was something unbelievable,” she added after the match.
Is the refusal to ‘think about anything’ the secret to producing ‘something unbelievable’? Sabalenka has struggled for vast stretches of 2019, and she isn’t out of the woods yet (this was just a first-round match), but if she can keep finding such pure, unencumbered stroke-play, she’ll soon become a force to reckon with again very soon.
The equation is not so simple for her vanquished compatriot. Azarenka has tried her best to get back to the top of the game since returning from child-birth, but fate doesn’t seem to be on her side. Almost every second tournament she gets handed the draw from hell, and on the few occasions she gets a kinder draw, she somehow runs into an opponent playing lights-out tennis.
At the Australian Open this year it was Laura Siegemund, at Roland Garros it was Naomi Osaka (their second round match was one of the best contests of the year), at Wimbledon it was Simona Halep in the third round, and now it is Sabalenka in the very first match. Has any player ever had this bad luck for this long?
Maybe Azarenka should take a cue from Sabalenka and stop thinking about anything. If it worked for one Belarusian, the odds can’t be that bad for another.
Updated Date: Aug 28, 2019 14:33:30 IST