In a dramatic turnaround under the Louis Armstrong Stadium lights of Tuesday’s evening session, Aryna Sabalenka, the 9th seed, pulled off a dramatic comeback against fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, 3-6 6-3 6-4, at the US Open.
I was getting crazier with every point, wondering why I couldn't control anything on this court. 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. Aryna Sabalenka
It was the first meeting between two Belarusian players in a Grand Slam main draw since the country became an independent country, according to the WTA, and both women have played for the Belarus Fed Cup team, Azarenka 8 times and Sabalenka 4 times, although they only competed on the same squad once, in a 2016 World Group playoff win against Russia.
Sabalenka made her major breakthrough at Flushing Meadows last year when she reached the 4th round and falling in three tough sets to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.
The 21-year old rose nearly 400 places in the rankings in In 2016, ending the year at No155 and stormed onto the scene with an intriguing mix of power and determination.
Playing Azaranka, a former World No 1 who has put tennis on the map back home in Belarus, was a tough ask.
“I was getting crazier with every point, wondering why I couldn’t control anything on this court,” Sabalenka admitted after the match.
“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 showed off her fighting qualities when it mattered most against the two-time US Open finalist to win after 2 hours and 13 minutes.
“I feel like it’s a big win for me because I’m happy I could find something in the important moments, which helped me stay in this big fight. It feels like an important win,” she added.
The Belarusian made her Top 10 debut earlier this year after a stellar 2018 season, during which she won her first Premier 5 title at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, but has been dealing with inconsistency since, reaching just two WTA semi-finals between February and May, and losing before the second week of all three major tournaments this year.
Still, Sabalenka showed signs of life during the North American hardcourt swing, where she first began her surge 12 months ago, with a runner-up finish at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.
She must have felt she was looking in a mirror since both were dressed in identical Nike kits, down to their headbands and wristbands.
More important, though, they each resembled their old selves.
Azarenka played some of her best tennis since she was ranked No 1 in the world and made 2 US Open finals (2012-13), losing to Serena Williams in 3 sets on both occasions, and Sabalenka summoned the same destructive form that made her the hottest player of last autumn, when she rocketed into the Top 10 by winning 3 titles and going 28-5 in the last half of the season and the start of 2019.
Against Azarenka, she nonetheless fell behind an early break in what was her first meeting with her compatriot.
“I know she’s a great player, especially playing someone else from Belarus, it’s extra tough because both of you want to win and it’s really important for both us,” Sabalenka admitted. “I couldn’t control my emotions in the first set, but I’m happy I could get smoother on the court.”
Azarenka, one of 4 mothers who entered the US Open singles main draw (along with Serena Williams, Tatjana Maria, and Mandy Minella), saw her undefeated record in the first round of Grand Slams ended on the night despite going up a set and 2-0 when it looked like the 21-year-old’s recent woes would continue.
The younger Belarusian, however, she raised her level and began to land more serves close to 120 miles per hour.
“I was out of the game, and in one moment, I think, ‘Well, there’s nothing to lose right now,’” she said on court after the match.
Azarenka traded blows with her younger countrywoman, and both thrilled the crowd with screaming ground-stroke winners from all parts of the court.
In the last game of the second set, Sabalenka smothered the court and rattled off 5 explosive winners to close it out.
The quality remained gripping throughout the 3rd set, becoming as close to a contact sport as a tennis match can be.
Azarenka drew first blood with a break for 2-1, then Sabalenka broke right back.
The shots somehow got even bigger until the 5th game, tied at 2-all, when first Sabalenka’s shot knocked Azarenka to the ground, then the former No 1 answered by taking Sabalenka off her feet at the baseline.
Sabalenka fought off 2 break points in that game, and finally got the last break at 4-all and served out the match for a spot in the second round.
“It was a really high level today, and I’m just happy that in the last two games, I didn’t put any pressure on myself,” Sabalenka observed. “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.”
In all, she struck a solid 42 winners to 43 unforced errors, while converting 4 of 9 break point opportunities.
Although Azarenka struck fewer errors with a total of 27, she also ended the match with only 17 winners.
Awaiting Sabalenka, the 2019 Shenzhen Open champion, is good friend Yulia Putintseva, who eased past American Madison Brengle in a late match that took place on Court 13.
“We’ve had some fun in the past, like when we went to a restaurant, I paid for the meal, and she told me next time she’d pay,” she laughed. “A few days ago, she let me know that we’d play each other if we won our first rounds, so she suggested we celebrate before that match if it happens.
“We joked about putting something in each other’s food!
“As a player, she’s a great player, playing well right now, and beating a lot of top players.
“She’s quick and her game is very fast, and aggressive. It’s a tough opponent, but I’ll do everything to prepare myself and be ready to compete on this level. If I win, she should have to pay, but I will probably pay anyway!”