I have spent a lot of time this week writing variations of this basic theme: Don’t call this a crisis. Aryna Sabalenka is the latest player who merits this word of caution after an early Dubai loss.
Players who are especially young; players who have recently achieved something of note; players recovering from injury; and players in other particular situations are generally not in a state of “crisis.” I would need to see substantial evidence of a career erosion or tailspin beyond those limiting factors.
Sabalenka comes nowhere close to a worst-case scenario or anything which deserves a severe response.
She does, however, face a certain degree of pressure heading into Indian Wells and Miami, and that’s why she is part of our Indian Wells Pressure series at Tennis With An Accent. Her loss to Belinda Bencic — after losing six match points and falling in a final-set tiebreaker in Duba on Wednesday — should not ring any alarm bells. However, it does mean that she needs — more than other players in Southern California and then South Florida — to take something from her upcoming trip to the United States.
Sloane Stephens is several years older than Sabalenka, so she wasn’t in the same position as Sabalenka entering the 2018 tennis season. Nevertheless, one common thread between Stephens a year ago at this time and Sabalenka now is that both players had roared through the second halves of their seasons to varying degrees. Both players began to rack up match wins and strong results during the North American summer hardcourt season. They both took advantage of the fact that they had played comparatively little tennis in the first half of the season — Stephens due to a long injury layoff, Sabalenka due more to early exits in tournaments as she tried to find her way on tour.
Stephens and Sabalenka had fresher legs and fuller fuel tanks in the summer hardcourt season. While their tennis acumen was the main reason they did so well — Sloane in the late summer of 2017, Sabalenka in the late summer of 2018 — their reduced numbers on the odometer certainly mattered. Sabalenka certainly would not have won so many three-set matches in the second half of 2018 if she had played a remotely comparable amount of matches in the first half of 2018.
Stephens did not fly out of the gates at the start of her 2018 season, but Indian Wells is where she began to regain form, and she then put all the pieces together in Miami, winning that title. Stephens did remain inconsistent for most of the 2018 season, but that Miami title gave her something tangible and significant to carry to European clay, where she reached the final of Roland Garros and nearly won her second major title.
Sabalenka needs to gain something from Indian Wells and Miami. No, she doesn’t need to win a title, but I would say that one semifinal or two quarterfinals (at least one quarterfinal) would remind her how good she can be, providing a springboard into clay and the rest of the year. Moreover, Sabalenka is not defending a lot of points in this first half of the season, so if she wants to boost her rankings, the Indian Wells-Miami “Sunshine Swing” represents a big opportunity for her.
Yet, attached to the opportunity is a considerable amount of pressure to live up to the quality of tennis she delivered in the second half of 2018. This is not a make-or-break moment for Sabalenka — nowhere close — but there certainly is an extra degree of urgency attached to the Sunshine Swing for the Belarusian.