I was wrong. Very wrong. I thought Aryna Sabalenka was going to produce a strong 2019 season. After a quick Wimbledon exit against Magdalena Rybarikova, this year has now been reduced to the hardcourt summer and autumn.
It was in August of 2018 that Sabalenka began her rise up the charts, starting in Montreal and continuing in Cincinnati and New Haven, pushing through the U.S. Open and gaining even more points in China and beyond. Sabalenka kept winning three-set matches. She kept providing answers to the questions opponents threw at her. Occasionally, she dominated, but the most impressive thing about Sabalenka in the back half of 2018 was how resilient she was. She could take a punch, calmly absorb it, and regroup.
Sabalenka’s game wasn’t always locked in, but at its best, it contained heft without sacrificing too much margin. The Belarusian had a way of playing which seemed sustainable. I was sold on her style and felt it pointed to a productive 2019. Her tough three-set loss to Naomi Osaka at the 2018 U.S. Open — the only set Osaka lost at that tournament — told me Sabalenka would remain a factor on tour.
As much as I liked what I saw, there was a fundamental question Sabalenka had to answer. Caroline Garcia has had to answer it. Wang Qiang has had to answer it. Many tennis players have had to answer it through the years:
When you thrive in the second half of a tennis season, can you then show that you are a complete, full-season player the next year?
Remember: Playing a great second half of a tennis season after doing nothing in the first half is often a product of having fresher legs when most of the rest of the tour is tired. This doesn’t take away from the achievement. Lots of players on tour hope to be able to pounce on that opportunity, which exists for every underplayed player from August through October.
Nevertheless, it is a simple reality that big second halves of tennis seasons occur under one particular set of circumstances. Playing a full season at an elite level (or something close to it) involves beating opponents when they aren’t as tired, or when you have a bigger target on your back. Players who thrive in second halves of a given season then face that bigger target at the start of the next season.
The rest of the tour has been able to recuperate… and study scouting reports… and find extra motivation. It is a completely different world, playing the tour as a known entity in January and March and May, compared to sneaking up on everyone in August and September as Sabalenka did in late 2018.
She will now enter the month of August once again, but this time without the advantage of relative anonymity. It is highly unlikely she will come anywhere close to replicating her second half of 2018 in the coming months.
Some will say that the summer and autumn hardcourt seasons are hugely important for Sabalenka. If you want to make that claim, I won’t argue. Sure, it would be good to bounce back and walk away from 2019 with a measure of confidence.
Yet, if Sabalenka does regroup in August and September, that will merely invite the question: “Why wasn’t that part of the whole season?” Whether Sabalenka excels or continues to struggle this summer, she is already in a position where the start of her 2020 season becomes the next true pivot point in her career.
From hardcourts to clay and then to grass, Sabalenka has been punched in the mouth this year. That isn’t fun, and it isn’t what a lot of tennis pundits — including myself — predicted, but this is part of the education of a young tennis player.
Losing isn’t a sin for a young player. The only sin is failing to learn from the experience.
Sure, 2019 has been a bad year for Sabalenka. As long as she takes notes and evolves in 2020, this journey will have been worth it. That’s the big-picture view young athletes have to take when seasons don’t turn out as planned.