That match was a real head-turner.
Amanda Anisimova demanded — and commanded — the tennis world’s attention. Everyone who follows this sport is talking about her after the 17-year-old upstaged 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka in the third round of the Australian Open on Friday.
This was not Sabalenka’s failure. This was not a story of the 20-year-old’s deficiencies in the first major tournament where she was considered a serious threat for the title.
This was a story of a 17-year-old coming onto the scene and stealing the thunder Sabalenka had captured in the second half of 2018.
This wasn’t about anything the loser failed to do. This was about the winner blitzing an immensely talented opponent. This was about Anisimova imposing her backhand and the rest of her game on Sabalenka, absorbing the power which came her way and sending it back with interest. The woman throwing the thunderbolts was the American from New Jersey with Russian roots. Sabalenka, the Belarusian star, was continuously zapped. She was on the receiving end of an electric display, no longer the provider of high-voltage tennis she had been from August of 2018 onward.
Sabalenka entered the year as the most realistic candidate to become The Next Big Thing in women’s tennis, the next player to “arrive” as a heavyweight on tour. Naomi Osaka arrived in 2018. Sabalenka wasn’t “supposed” to be next, because “supposed” carries a certain whiff of assumption which pundits should always be wary of using freely in connection with 20-year-old athletes. Nevertheless, Sabalenka was a name which flowed from the lips — and typewriting fingers — of many tennis commentators and writers. It was entirely logical to think she would take the next step this year.
That next step might still happen. To be clear once again, this loss wasn’t about Sabalenka’s failures.
Nevertheless, “The Next Big Thing” conversation just took a fascinating turn.
In the seminal 1984 movie “The Natural” — a classic piece of Hollywood cinema — loads of unforgettable scenes fill the masterwork based on the Bernard Malamud novel of the same name. One such scene occurs here. You can watch all four minutes of the clip, but the essential scene within the clip begins at 2:55, and the instructive moment occurs at 3:22.
Here is the link:
— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) January 18, 2019
The woman — played by Barbara Hershey — had been admiring the big, muscular slugger, but when the obscure farmboy pitcher — played by Robert Redford — strikes him out, Hershey very slowly and quietly turns her head to the player she had been ignoring. The simple turn of a head conveys a vast universe of meaning.
Everything has changed.
It is hard to digest Anisimova’s clinical and decisive walloping of Sabalenka and not recall that kind of feeling.
Mind you, this is only one match. It is authored by a 17-year-old, which brings with it all sorts of cautionary notes and pleas for patience. Plenty of tennis observers are privately thinking this could be The Next Great Player in tennis, but that’s what some people were saying about Sabalenka over the past few months. We all need to give it time — we know that.
She is only 17, and look at that backhand. Look at the developed game. Look at the relaxation on court and how natural that display seemed against a world-class opponent in the top 12 of the WTA rankings.
It gives one pause.
It was a real head-turner.
Many more words will be written about Amanda Anisimova in the future, especially after a performance such as this one in Melbourne. For now, let the simple turn of a head from one athlete to another represent the most powerful and eloquent statement a 17-year-old possibly could have made.
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