Last week in Toronto, the tennis community celebrated the rise of a charismatic 20-year-old tennis player who is happy, charming, engaging, and puts a happy face on the sport.
This week in Cincinnati, another such story has emerged.
Canada represented the next big step forward for Stefanos Tsitsipas. Ohio has given tennis a bigger, better, bolder breakthrough for a player who, like Tsitsipas, had been making forward strides in 2018, but took that pattern of improvement to the next level in the North American summer hardcourt season before the U.S. Open.
Aryna Sabalenka made the finals of Eastbourne before losing to Caroline Wozniacki. Woz might have been injured a month and a half later in Montreal, but Sabalenka — on the verge of losing — fought back late in the third set to oust the reigning Australian Open champion. That match, in itself, revealed Sabalenka’s growing capacity to absorb lessons, much as Tsitsipas did the same in Canada by avenging his Washington loss to Sascha Zverev. Yet, as good as Sabalenka’s round-of-16 run was in Montreal, she elevated her level of play to a conspicuous degree in Cincinnati, going all the way to the semifinals before iron-willed Simona Halep stopped her on Saturday afternoon.
The most impressive aspect of Sabalenka’s Cincinnati tournament was the very fact that it wasn’t easy. Much as Tsitsipas won three consecutive three-set matches against elite players in Toronto — Novak Djokovic, then Zverev, then Kevin Anderson — Sabalenka also won three straight three-setters against formidable opposition. No, Jo Konta isn’t the WTA equivalent of Zverev or even Kevin Anderson, but she is no tomato can, either — she is a Miami champion and a multiple major semifinalist. Sabalenka overcame a first-set loss to beat Konta in three to start her main-draw Cincinnati campaign. Then she came from a set down to beat top-10 seed Karolina Pliskova. In the round of 16, she prevailed late — as she has increasingly been able to do in recent weeks — to beat another top-10 seed, Caroline Garcia.
The reality of winning in spite of difficulties inspires so much more confidence than breezing through a tournament. Tennis players need to know how to respond AFTER getting punched in the mouth. Resilience isn’t an optional ingredient in a champion’s profile. Dealing with in-match adversity is inherent to top-tier success in the sport. I don’t want to know how players play when everything goes right — everyone can get hot and ride the wave a little bit. Sabalenka did that in her quarterfinal against Madison Keys — not for 100 percent of the match, but for large portions. The earlier wins over Konta (no letdown after Montreal), Pliskova (beating an opponent who had a lot to prove in Cincy), and Garcia (much the same as Pliskova) in rugged, prolonged contests revealed ample growth. This is no sure sign of stardom — like Tsitsipas, Sabalenka has not yet authored an unforgettable moment which stamps a great player in the making — but she is just as clearly getting there. She is learning how much potential she has.
She is learning, like Tsitsipas, how much lightning she has in her hands and can unleash upon the tour in the future.
What is also delightful to read in one’s observations of the Western and Southern Open: Sabalenka strikes the right notes in the press room and is happy to open herself up to the larger world. A new generation of talented players doesn’t have to match the on-court achievements of current legends in order to give tennis enduring box-office appeal and media relevance in the 2020s and beyond, but being a sunny presence who is already making fans in Cincinnati will do much to sustain the sport, a foremost concern of anyone who cares about tennis beyond the Serena and Big 3 era.
Aryna Sabalenka is just getting started. Don’t think that this week in Cincinnati shows what she WILL in fact achieve the next 10 years… but allow yourself to realize that in a crowded WTA Tour with a lot of potent players capable of achieving richly, Sabalenka is moving in the direction of someone more inclined to stand out in the crowd, and less inclined to fade into the background.