Aryna Sabalenka in 2021: A breakthrough at Grand Slam level
Two titles and, above all, her first two Grand Slam semi-finals: Aryna Sabalenka turned a corner in 2021. Here’s Tennis Majors’ review of the Belarussian’s performances in the past year
She had been hovering around the Top 10 for three years without ever breaking through. Ranked No 11 at the end of 2018, the same in 2019 and No 10 at the end of 2020, Aryna Sabalenka took a big step forward in 2021 as she won two titles, reached two Grand Slam semi-finals and ended the year ranked No 2, competing for top spot with Ash Barty.
- Ranking at end of 2020: 10
- Ranking at end of 2021 : 2
- 2021 Win-loss: 45 – 18
- Titles : 2
Best performance: US Open semi-finals
Sabalenka has looked unrecognisable at times in 2021, and that’s a good thing. As the year began, the Belarussian had won eight titles on Tour and had always threatened to produce big things, but she had always disappeared into her shell at the Grand Slam events; until the summer of 2021, she’d never gone past the last 16 (US Open 2018 and Australian Open 2021)
Now, she’s reached two Grand Slam semi-finals. The first one came at Wimbledon in July, and then she made it back-to-back semi-final efforts by reaching the last four at the US Open, where her battle with Leylah Fernandez was perhaps the most intense battle of the season. Though she went down in two hours, 21 minutes to the young Canadian, 7-6, 4-6, 6-2, Sabalenka will have learned a lot from the experience.
Best Grand Slam result: two semi-finals, Wimbledon and US Open
Less mentally fragile, physically powerful and with a game based around huge serves often hit around 190km/hr, Sabalenka stormed into her first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon in July.
After easily beating Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in the quarter-finals, she missed out on a place in the final only after a titanic three-set battle with former world No 1 Karolina Pliskova. Showing enormous resilience, something she’s lacked at the biggest moments in the past, Sabalenka saved eight break points in the first set and it was only a great serving day from Pliskova that stopped her from making the final. The pair hit 32 aces between them, a record for a women’s match at The All England Club.
Sabalenka’s best moment of the season: her first title on clay in Madrid, where she gained revenge on Barty
Sabalenka won her fourth Masters 1000 title in Madrid on May, beating world No 1 Ash Barty 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 in the final, a victory that must have tasted extra sweet, having lost to the Australian the previous week in the final in Stuttgart. In the first set, she won 75 percent of points behind her first serve and an incredible 100 percent of points behind her second, the perfect start as she claimed her first title on clay.
Sabalenka’s worst moment of the season: missing out at year-end WTA Finals
Seeded No 1 for the year-ending WTA Finals after the withdrawal of Barty, Sabalenka was one of the favourites for the elite eight-woman event. But the Belarussian did not make it to the knockout stage, finishing last in her group.
While she led Paula Badosa 4-2 in her opening match, she lost 10 straight games as she suffered a shock 6-4, 6-0 loss. She bounced back with a 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory over Iga Swiatek but then went down 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 to Maria Sakkari in her final group match and failed to qualify for the semi-finals.
“Sometimes edgy, often tense, the world No 2 has yet to exercise her mental demons. In the US Open semi-final defeat by Fernandez, Sabalenka made 52 unforced errors. “I’ve been working with a psychologist for a long time,” she said, “and compared to four years ago, I’ve improved my psychological state. But no psychologist can prepare you for every situation.”
Off-court: Vaccine reluctant; missed Indian Wells after contracting Covid-19, eventually vaccinated
Like Novak Djokovic, Aryna Sabalenka voiced doubts about the Covid-19 vaccine in the spring. “I don’t really trust it, I’ll think twice,” she said at the time.
In October, the Belarussian was forced to miss the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, after contracting the virus. “I need to go outside,” she said at the time. “Why not just isolate myself from the other players and let me play? I could keep my distance and stay away from everyone.” At the WTA Finals, Sabalenka then confirmed she had been vaccinated in Miami.
Her self-evaluation: “The best season of my career”
With two titles and twice a semi-finalist at the Grand Slams, not to mention No 2 in the world, self-evaluation was fairly easy for Sabalenka in 2021. “The best season of my career,” she said on Instagram.
I will comme back stronger next year.Aryna Sabalenka
After losing to Maria Sakkari at the WTA Finals, Sabalenka outlined her hopes for 2021. I have to continue to improve on my serve,” she said. I have already improved this year. Now I don’t let myself get overwhelmed. I don’t really panic anymore. I will come back even stronger next year.”
Tennis Majors’ view: A major step forward
More sound, mentally, Sabalenka has put together a 2021 worthy of the world’s top 10 and made a legitimate breakthrough. Perhaps the trigger is on her staff’s side. Two years ago, the Belarusian parted ways with her coach, Dmitry Tursunov, with whom she had won her first WTA titles. After a moment of uncertainty, her former Belarusian sparring partner, Anton Dubrov, became her new coach and she has won four titles with him. Next up, arguably the most complex milestone: reaching and winning a Grand Slam final.