October 25, 2020

Back From the Brink

You know that phrase, "Down, but not out"? Well, we sure saw a prime example of that this week at the inaugural J&T Banka Ostrava Open in the Czech Republic.

Third seeded Aryna Sabalenka was trailing 0-6, 0-4, 40-Ad in her quarterfinal match against Sara Sorribes Tormo on Friday and somehow found it in her to rally for the next twelve games, not dropping a single one of them and coming out the winner under the unlikeliest of circumstances. And for those who thought she might be too spent from that effort to go any further -- I admittedly count myself in that group -- she was happy to prove us wrong, not only recovering to win her semifinal a day later, but going on to crush recent standout Victoria Azarenka with a straight set win in today's title match. And, if that weren't enough, she teamed up with Elise Mertens to win the doubles crown in Ostrava too.

It ended up being a redemption tour of sorts for the 22-year-old Belarusian. Not only did she avenge her second round U.S. Open loss to Vika on Sunday, but a few matches earlier she'd also rebounded, this time from a 1-6 first set against Coco Gauff, her vanquisher in Lexington, to manage that win as well.

But it will likely be that quarterfinal match that Sabalenka is better remembered for, rivalling even the epic turn of the tables Varvara Gracheva pulled off against Kiki Mladenovic just a few weeks ago. It's encouraging that Sabalenka was able to play more consistently in later rounds, but the streakiness of that one match certainly presents some questions -- not to mention what it says for Sorribes, who was a point away from a 5-0 lead in that second set before she was dismantled.

Sabalenka is, after all, one of the more powerful players on tour. Two years ago she caught my eye with her performance during the U.S. hardcourt season, where she picked up her maiden title in New Haven and put together his still-best Major performance with a run to the fourth round in New York. A few weeks later in Wuhan, she beat Elina Svitolina, Sofia Kenin and Ashleigh Barty on her way to a second career trophy. She beat Barty again in defending that title in 2019, and this year has wins over Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova to boot. But she's also been on the losing side of some surprising scorelines, upset by Kristyna Pliskova, Jessica Pegula, and a now in-recovery Carla Su´rrez Navarro.

But perhaps that quarterfinal marked a turning point not just for this tournament, but for Sabalenka's career. If she can prove she's more like the player we saw since then than the one before, it's going to be hard for her rivals to compete and she could not only make herself a more consistent feature of the top ten but become a real contender for the big titles. We haven't yet seen a deep run from her at the Majors, after all, but maybe that will change in the new year.

And, at the very least, we'll all know never to count her out.

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