Sabalenka hits stride on clay with sights on first French Open crown

Thursday, May 23, 2024

PARIS: Aryna Sabalenka arrives at the French Open as the player most likely to challenge Iga Swiatek’s dominance on Parisian clay as the world number two goes in search of her second major title this season after overcoming a brief loss of form.

Perhaps the only competitor on the women’s tour with the power to blow opponents away like the retired Serena Williams used to, Sabalenka can be a threat on any surface if she cuts out the inconsistency that occasionally creeps into her game.

The Belarusian showcased her big-hitting to great effect as she retained her Australian Open crown in January, looking well primed to extend her dominance beyond Melbourne’s hardcourts before early losses in Dubai and Indian Wells.

Those exits preceded the apparent suicide of Sabalenka’s former boyfriend Konstantin Koltsov as she geared up for her home Miami Open, a tournament she bravely played despite the tragedy and reached the third round.

After another blip on clay in Stuttgart, Sabalenka ground out results in Madrid and finally found her range in a final for the ages where the 26-year-old narrowly lost to reigning Roland Garros champion Swiatek. “I fought back. I found my game. I brought everything back together and started playing on a high level,” Sabalenka said of the deep run in Spain that reignited her season.

“I fought a couple of really tough battles against top players and I got some wins. I was close to getting another title. But it is how it is.” Sabalenka continued building momentum in Rome despite illness and a concerning lower back issue before going down to Swiatek again in the title clash but there were plenty of positives despite the defeat.

“I went through so many things,” she added. “I’m proud that I was able to, no matter what, stay there, to keep winning, to keep fighting my way to the final.” Sabalenka enjoyed a stellar 2023 campaign, backing up her success in Australia with runs to the French Open and Wimbledon semi-finals before losing in three sets to Coco Gauff in the U.S. Open title clash.

With runs to the semi-finals or beyond in each of the last six majors, Sabalenka has also been one of the most consistent players on the biggest stage in the last two seasons. However, she does not consider herself a favourite in Paris, where Swiatek has captured the last two titles after her maiden triumph in 2020. “At the same time I do feel I can actually go for it. It’s 50-50. But I prefer to be the underdog,” Sabalenka said.