It is not disappointing that Aryna Sabalenka lost to Angelique Kerber in the round of 16 at the BNP Paribas Open on Tuesday night. Kerber is a three-time major champion, someone who will certainly be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame one day. There is never any shame in losing to an elite player.
The concern for Sabalenka in the middle of March, roughly two full months into her 2019 season, is that the characteristic which defined her late-2018 run has not been consistently evident this year.
This is not a crisis, but it is something Sabalenka has to pay attention to. The laws of tennis physics are at work, and Sabalenka is feeling their gravitational forces.
What do we always notice on tour, season after season? There is always at least one person who, to some degree, takes advantage of a comparatively tired tour field and makes a run in the second half of the season. That player then has to come back at the start of the new season — after the rest of the tour has been able to revive and recharge — and show s/he can still play an elite brand of ball without an advantage in freshness or momentum.
Naomi Osaka lost on Tuesday night along with Sabalenka, but Osaka bagged an Australian Open title and has undeniably built on her first significant achievement, registered a year ago in Indian Wells. Sabalenka’s 2019 task was to build on her achievements. While caution is always needed with young players — meaning that one shouldn’t be too alarmed or worried after any individual match loss — the conspicuous part of Sabalenka’s early-season story which merits some focus is that she is not reining in her more erratic sequences.
Yes, Sabalenka’s huge game lends itself to errors. Sabalenka does not play conservative, passive tennis. What was notable about her rise in the second half of 2018 was that she played big but in a contained, measured way. She demonstrated an ability to measure her groundstrokes even while generating considerable power.
The Kerber loss wasn’t disappointing in itself, for reasons already stated. The loss was disappointing not because it happened, but because of HOW it happened: Sabalenka could not minimize damage. One erratic game bled into the next few games and allowed this match to slip away from a 4-1 lead in the third set.
There were three acts in this match: Act I involved Kerber winning 8 of 9 games to start the proceedings. Act II involved Sabalenka winning 10 of 13 games to claim the second set and go up 4-1 in the third. Act III involved Kerber winning the final five games to win the match. In each of these three acts, the winning player was mostly allowing the opponent to implode. A few spectacular points emerged here and there, especially at the end, but for the most part, this was the epitome of a match in which the best strategy to win points was to allow the opponent to miss.
Most — if not all — members of the global tennis community would generally agree that Aryna Sabalenka has to regain the 2018 formula in which bad sequences are limited and contained. Much like P3tra Kvitova, she might play one bad set, but can regularly pull herself back and reclaim steadiness in time to win three-setters. This is what Sabalenka did in the back end of 2018. It’s what she needs to be able to do again as 2019 continues.