You can hear the gears of the hype train churn for Aryna Sabalenka.
Elina Svitolina won the WTA Finals, and Naomi Osaka won the last major of 2018 at the U.S. Open, but from August through October of last year, no one in women’s tennis did more to introduce herself to a planet full of tennis fans than Sabalenka, who made deep runs in Cincinnati and New Haven before becoming the only player to take a set off Osaka at the U.S. Open. Sabalenka’s quality tennis continued into the Asian swing, and her meteoric rise enabled her to qualify for Zhuhai at the end of the season.
Whereas Osaka had already won Indian Wells and was a known entity, Sabalenka was thoroughly under the radar heading into August. Then, however, she defeated Caroline Wozniacki in Montreal and began to reel off one three-set win after another. She piled up matches and wins — a reality which caught up with her at the U.S. Open against Osaka — and accumulated a large collection of both teachable moments and fat paychecks. All of this was a bountiful buffet for a young athlete — learning how to compete and getting tangibly positive reinforcement of good habits is a combination which can’t be beat.
Yet, as much as Sabalenka has earned every last ounce of hype on this train she is riding, it remains that her late-summer and early-autumn runs were in part the product of a young and physically fresh player facing veterans with more tread on their tires.
This is something which happens often enough to notice in tennis: One player with more fuel in the tank makes a lot of hay late in the season because she didn’t play very many matches in the first half of the season.
Sloane Stephens and Caroline Garcia both fit this profile in 2017. Stephens made use of it in August and early September, Garcia in late September and early October. Stephens’s 2018 season was hardly a bust, but it remains that she was inconsistent. Garcia’s 2018 season WAS a bust. Maybe she will learn how to roll with the ups and downs a little better in 2019, but 2018 threw her a number of curveballs she wasn’t ready to hit.
Sabalenka entered 2019 in a different space, and she also entered it in Shenzhen, China, the site of this year’s WTA Finals.
It can very reasonably be said that Sabalenka’s performance in her first tournament of the season makes it more likely she will return to Shenzhen at the end of the season. Sabalenka won yet another three-set match to defeat Alison Riske in the Shenzhen final. She will take the court at the Australian Open as a central figure in the fortnight, not the peripheral yet growing force she was in New York last August.
When Sabalenka arrived at the U.S. Open, she was hardly a nobody — she had put her name on the map — but the truckload of tennis she had played in North America the previous two weeks was the product of a player who needed match play and was just trying to learn how to comport herself on tour, figuring out all sorts of situations and gain insights from those experiences.
Now, heading into Melbourne, Sabalenka is at the forefront of the WTA conversation. Winning the first tournament of her season will only raise her profile even more. It will be fascinating to see how she fares in her attempt to maintain tunnel vision… and walk the three-set tightrope should she have to cope with it again.
A word of caution: Though Sabalenka does undeniably offer the appearance of a player who is blossoming into a star, you know that some people in the tennis cosmos will apply far more significance to this one tournament in Melbourne Park than is warranted. Sure, it is an important tournament, but it is NOT a career-defining one. It would be great if Sabalenka thrived — such a scenario would obviously propel her career and feed a growing sense of confidence — but let’s not get into the trap of insisting that a very young player who is still JUST beginning to realize her capabilities is about to play a MUST-WIN tournament.
Be excited, by all means, about Aryna Sabalenka. At the same time, manage to temper expectations just enough to allow for the imperfections of youth to be part of this picture in Australia, and in 2019 in general.
This career is currently ahead of schedule and traveling on the right track. When a rocky period emerges, though — and it very likely will — be ready to understand the natural flow of life, instead of sounding an alarm.
The hype train has to be managed carefully, just like any other mass-transit vehicle.