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Aryna Sabalenka stands between realities

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

No tennis tournament is meaningless. Every tennis tournament means something. Yet, some tennis tournaments and portions of the tennis season mean more than others. Ask Aryna Sabalenka.

The Belarusian is caught between competing tensions at the Wuhan Open, as the Asian swing moves through China with the 2019 season nearing its conclusion.

On one hand, Sabalenka certainly needs to revive her career. She needs to feel the sensation of winning consistently and posting solid results. Any athlete who struggles needs to remember what it feels like to win with regularity, to bust a slump.

To that extent, Wuhan is an extremely important tournament.

Yet, on the other hand, everyone in tennis will look at Sabalenka and pronounce — quite reasonably — that anything she does this autumn means little in relationship to the 2020 season.

Sabalenka and Naomi Osaka were the two hottest WTA players in the second half of the 2018 season. Only Osaka carried her winning ways into the 2019 Australian Open. Sabalenka didn’t carry anything into 2019. The new season placed a target on her back, and she didn’t handle it well.

This doesn’t make Sabalenka’s 2019 season unacceptable; far from it. This was a familiar and natural learning process for a player who turned 21 this year.

If Sabalenka was 24 or 25, we wouldn’t view the 2019 season the same way. If she was 28 or 29, another different interpretation would be warranted. For a young player, however, 2019 will always be a year marked by growing pains.

The 2020 season — not Wuhan or Beijing — will truly show what Sabalenka has learned. We can all agree on this.

Yet, it would be an extreme statement to say that this trip through China holds no value.

If Sabalenka rebounds and picks up lessons she takes into 2020, this portion of her season will acquire more meaning in retrospect.

No tennis tournament is meaningless.

However, we can’t pronounce this Wuhan tournament as a decisive moment, with Sabalenka reaching the semifinals and having a chance to make a Premier 5 final when she takes on Ashleigh Barty. We have to wait until Australia to put this period of time in a larger context.

Sabalenka might be in the process of regrouping, which contains inherent value, but the tour will have something to say in 2020 about how well the 21-year-old applies various lessons.

One also has to add — in emphasizing the need to withhold an overly expansive verdict on what Wuhan means for Sabalenka — that Simona Halep retired from her round-of-16 match. Halep was Sabalenka’s potential quarterfinal opponent. If Sabalenka had played and beaten Halep — and not Elena Rybakina — one could draw more from a specific match outcome (not a ton, but more).

At this point, the most irresponsible verdict on Aryna Sabalenka is the one which assigns far-reaching significance to any given day’s developments.

Be patient and wait, especially until next January.

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Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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