Aryna Sabalenka edged closer to usurping Iga Swiatek’s World No 1 spot after the 22-year old Pole’’s Wimbledon exit on Tuesday, when the Belarusian World No 2 dispatched American Madison Keys, 6-2 6-4, on No 1 Court on Wednesday to reach the semi-finals of The Championships at Wimbledon for the second time in her career.
To be honest, I want both. But I’m trying to focus on myself because I know, if I start thinking about all this stuff, I’m going to lose my focus on court, my game. Later on we'll see if I’m ready to become World No 1, or if I’m ready to play another final. Aryna Sabalenka
Stung at not being allowed to compete at Wimbledon last year, due to the tournament’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players, Sabalenka has her eyes firmly set on landing her second Grand Slam title at this year’s Championships, and she has two matches to go to attain her dream.
The Belarusian has dropped 2 sets so far, to Varvara Gracheva, and Anna Blinkova, both from Russia, but she seems to have dispatched those blips in her last 2 matches, which she won comfortably enough.
If she can reach the final, then Sabalenka will become the new World No 1, dethroning Swiatek, who has ruled the roost since April 4, 2022, and is spending her 66th and 67th week in the top slot until the end of Wimbledon.
Since the Pole was eliminated in the quarter-finals by Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, though, the 25-year-old Belarusian’s task has been made all the more easier.
Sabalenka had a good chance to finish at the top of the rankings at Roland-Garros, but she needed to win the title to do so, and it was Swiatek who maintained her ranking by lifting the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup for the 3rd time.
Facing Keys, the No 25 seed, in the Last 8, Sabalenka knew the American has the power to hurt her, having won the title at Eastbourne two weeks ago, while they were evenly matched, with a win apiece in their head-to-head record going in.
“She’s very aggressive player,” the Belarusian told the media ahead of their latest encounter. “Her forehand can be really annoying. She’s hitting some really big shots from there. Serving really well. Playing pretty fast game.
“She’s really tough opponent to play against. I mean, I know it’s going to be great battle. I’m really looking forward for this match.”
As it happened, Sabalenka overpowered Keys to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals after 87 minutes, and is now just one win away from overtaking Swiatek as the top-ranked player.
Her next hurdle will be 6th-seeded Ons Jabeur from Tunisia, who knocked out defending champion Elena Rybakina in 3 sets, avenging her loss to the Kazakh in last year’s final.
Asked what motivates her more, the chance for her first Wimbledon title, or the No 1 ranking, Sabalenka replied: “To be honest,” Sabalenka told reporters, “I want both.
“But I’m trying to focus on myself because I know, if I start thinking about all this stuff, I’m going to lose my focus on court, my game.
“Later on we’ll see if I’m ready to become World No 1, or if I’m ready to play another final.”
Sabalenka is the only woman to reach at least the semi-finals of the past 4 Grand Slams, and the reigning Australian Open champion has won 17 of 18 matches at this year’s majors, equalling Serena Williams’ feat of 2015.
Her match against Keys was the expected slugfest, with Sabalenka going after every ball with high velocity, especially on her second serves.
According to the stats, 62 rallies were shorter than 4 shots for the match, while the average rally was just 2.78 shots.
Sabalenka struck 17 winners and made only 14 unforced errors, while Keys went 19 for 22.
The American entered the match with a flawless 9-0 record this year on grass, going back to her second title at Eastbourne, and while this was the 28-year-old American’s second quarter-final here, Wimbledon remains the only major where she has not advanced to the semi-finals.
The first game of the match was a 6-minute journey, with Keys saving 3 break points, but not the 4th as Sabalenka sent a backhand slice winner knifing off the court.
The Belarusian broke for a second time to take a 4-1 lead, but, when serving for the set at 5-2, she encountered resistance, particularly from the Keys’ backhand.
Ultimately, Sabalenka closed out the opener, converting her 3rd set point with a 100 mph serve that Keys simply could not handle.
The second sailed along smoothly enough for both, until the 6th game, when Keys dug in and scored her first break of the match, 2 powerful service return winners setting the tone and, when Sabalenka’s looping forehand drifted just wide, the American appeared to be in a commanding position at 4-2.
A game later, though, they were back on serve, Sabalenka having broken through when a Keys backhand flew wide.
“Yeah, she played unbelievable tennis, like, the whole match,” Sabalenka told reporters later. “In those, like, few games, she played unbelievable.
“When she was serving for 5-2, 40-Love up, I was just, like, kind of telling myself that it’s okay, we going to play third set, that’s fine. Just try to put a little more pressure on her in this set so she didn’t feel that much, like, confidence going into the third set.
“I was just, like, trying my best. Lucky me, I won that game somehow, yeah, and turn around that second set.”
In fact, Sabalenka won her 3rd game in a row, breaking Keys for the 4th time in the match, and served for the win at 5-4, winning her 4th, to reach 40 match-wins for the year, behind only Swiatek.
This run is particularly meaningful to Sabalenka, considering she was unable to play a year ago.
“I was really sad, but at the same time I was thinking that, ‘OK, it’s a good time to kind of like reset and start everything over again,”‘ she said. “I was struggling a lot with my serve, with these emotions, with a lot of stuff. I just took that time as a good preparation, as a good little switch.
“I did really good work, and it helped me at the US Open. Then I started believing in myself more, I start playing better, I start feeling better on court. Emotionally, I start feeling better. I think this period gave me so much belief in myself.”
On facing Jabeur, perhaps the player she was least expecting, she said: “No, actually we practiced here before Wimbledon.
“I felt like she’s going to do well here because she played unbelievable tennis on practice court. I know it’s different on practice than on match. She was able to bring this level on matches.
“It’s not like I didn’t expect that. Yeah, she’s a great player. We always had tough battles against each other, very close matches. I really looking forward for this great battle.”
Sabalenka leads their head-to-head, 3-1, including a straight-sets win in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2021.