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Sabalenka Grows — And Continues The WTA’s Magical Year

Matt Zemek

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Tennis24.com via Twitter

It is no grand secret, no hidden mystery, no elaborate and unnoticed narrative: Men’s tennis — if not now, certainly in the middle of the next decade, when each of the Big 3 are either retired or in their very late 30s — is on the verge of a dramatic comedown.

When Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have all finished the race, ATP tennis could return to that time in the early 2000s when Arnaud Clement or Rainer Schuettler made major finals. No disrespect is intended to those players, but one can simply say that the gulf in quality between the major finalists of the pre-Big 3 era — particularly that pocket of time from 1997 through 2002 — and the past 15 years is enormous.

My Tennis With An Accent colleague Andrew Burton is fond of saying that at every tournament, “Someone has to win the title.” Someone has to win every match. Someone has to win every trophy. Champions are always crowned at every tour stop, every week, on the tennis tours. This doesn’t mean the tennis is memorable, even though the champions at every event will rightly remember and cherish what they achieved. Every tennis player deserves to celebrate his or her moments in the sun, regardless of how great the tennis was along the way. We, those of us who write about tennis, never wish to dampen that sense of enjoyment. We don’t tell athletes that they shouldn’t feel good about the championships they win. I regularly say that style points don’t matter in a bottom-line sport such as tennis. I regularly note that what I think about the stylistic elements of a match is something athletes shouldn’t care one whit about.

But make no mistake: Past eras of men’s tennis — and the eventual end of the Big 3 era — suggest that the mid-2020s will mark a rough time for the ATP.

The WTA could not be in a more different position leaving Wuhan and entering Beijing. Women’s tennis, late in this 2018 season with 2019 about to emerge just over the horizon, is poised for a prolonged period of prosperity and riches.

The Wuhan Open and its newly-crowned Premier 5 champion showed why.

This tournament was the epitome of chaos.

None of the top 15 seeds made the quarterfinals. Not one.

Lots of players either had a hard time finding clarity and intensity, just two weeks after the U.S. Open, or were physically spent (or a combination of the two). One of the semifinals was cut short by a retirement from Wang Qiang. The proximity of this event to the end of the U.S. Open — which was brutally taxing for so many players because of the weather — didn’t lend itself to great tennis. Another week of rest between these events (three weeks separate Canada from Wimbledon, for instance, providing more of a buffer between a major tournament and the next big event on the calendar) was recommended. WTA players did the best they could under these imperfect circumstances, but the two-week break simply wasn’t sufficient.

The Wuhan Open must have been a dud, right?

Wrong.

If you were to identify the one unseeded player, the one face in the crowd, the one presence who could win this tournament and make everyone in tennis forget the limitations of the 2018 Wuhan Open, it could have been only one choice: It HAD to be Aryna Sabalenka.

It WAS Aryna Sabalenka. Of course!

There are two fundamental points to underscore about Sabalenka’s Wuhan championship, secured with a victory over Anett Kontaveit in Saturday’s final:

1 – Sabalenka defeated the only seeded player to make the semifinals, Ashleigh Barty, before reaching and winning the final against Kontaveit. This is notable because Barty made the 2017 Wuhan Open final before losing to Caroline Garcia. Barty made a late-season push last year and has done so again this year. Barty has shown occasional glimpses of rising to a higher level on the WTA ranks, but nothing sustained for a conspicuously long period of time. Her Montreal semifinal was highly encouraging — I wrote about it here — but if we are waiting for Barty to reach the top tier of the WTA Tour, we can safely say that hasn’t happened yet. It doesn’t mean Barty is behind schedule — no, I wouldn’t say that — but merely that her ascendance has been modest.

This leads into point two:

2 – Sabalenka is authoring a meteoric rise, highlighted by this Wuhan championship. This point might be obvious to the extent that it requires no explanation, but it demands at least a few notes.

We know about the high workload in Canada, Cincinnati, New Haven, and then in New York at the U.S. Open. The fact that Sabalenka took a few weeks to recharge and then had more than enough in the tank for Wuhan is notable.

It is more than that, however: Mentally, players often have a tough time resetting the dial in Asia after the U.S. Open. Continuing to attack the WTA Tour, continuing to attack tennis balls and specific opponents, is not easy to do every month of the season, and the autumn swing particularly tests players’ abilities to play with maximum hunger after the fourth major of the year ends. Sloane Stephens has a hard time during this point on the calendar. So do several other WTA notables.

Sabalenka made this process look relatively uncomplicated.

She won three-setters in her first two matches but then won her last four matches in Wuhan in straight sets, requiring 12 games (7-5) in only one set and needing only one tiebreaker victory as well. She mowed down the field, rightly making observers focus on the caliber of her dominance rather than on the hollowed-out bracket after the round of 16.

One final point must be emphasized for the record: Wuhan and other late-season tournaments — as shown by Caroline Garcia last year — are often won by players who have not loaded up on tennis, in many cases because they didn’t go too deep into too many tournaments from January through the U.S. Open. “Fuel-tank tennis” is a common dynamic in late-September or anytime-in-October tournaments, which makes the autumn swing a time when second-tier players sometimes pick up first-tier trophies and make rankings-point gains they fail to consolidate (as Garcia has failed to do) the following season.

With Sabalenka, that dynamic does not apply.

Yes, she didn’t go deep into tournaments in the spring, but her workload in the summer — combined with a TOUR-LEADING 19 three-set match wins this year (in nearly 30 three-set matches played) — marks Sabalenka as a player who was not operating on a full fuel tank entering China. While it is certainly true that Sabalenka has not had to shoulder the burden of a full January-to-September slog (which will represent the fundamental challenge of her 2019 season), she did not win Wuhan because she was more rested than anyone else. No way. That notion simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

No, this was a player who played more tennis than anyone else on the WTA Tour in August (more than Simona Halep winning Montreal and then making the Cincinnati final), did well at the U.S. Open, and then came to China and simply picked up where she left off.

She rightly left people in awe of her burgeoning career, her emerging credentials, and a noticeably well-rounded game married with the inner steel needed to make it great.

The WTA witnessed an event in Wuhan which, on many levels, would suggest the notion that a champion took advantage of unique circumstances. It is something which happens all the time in this sport. Yet, the reality that so many top players were not in position to play their best in Wuhan can’t really be used as the final word on this tournament — not when a player who played a truckload of tennis in recent weeks is the one who lifted the trophy.

A lot of tired tennis was played in Wuhan, but the WTA player who had every reason to play highly fatigued tennis — arguably more than anyone other than Naomi Osaka (who pulled out of the tournament before it began for her) — is the one who stormed through the field, particularly the final four rounds. Aryna Sabalenka rightly made everyone forget about the bracket carnage at the Wuhan Open. Her quality is too luminous to ignore right now.

Even when the WTA had an event which didn’t crackle as a complete entity, it still wound up with a champion whose excellence appropriately became the top story. That is how the WTA has been riding in 2018. Every champion does something so special that the mass exoduses of high seeds in early rounds do not matter.

Speaking of Osaka before we finish here: The month of September gave us Osaka-Sabalenka at the U.S. Open. When you realize how much tennis Sabalenka had played going into that match, it was impossible to repress or ignore the thought that if Sabalenka had not loaded up on matches entering that contest, the outcome might have been different.

In the weeks since that match, Osaka and Sabalenka have both won titles. Sabalenka took a brief amount of time away from tennis and promptly bagged a Premier 5 title. What is left to conclude other than this: Sabalenka continues to reinforce every sense that she is the real deal… much like Osaka.

This Wuhan Open and this month of September in 2018 do not guarantee superstardom for Sabalenka and Osaka — few things are guaranteed in sports, as in life — but everything we are seeing certainly points to the idea that these two young stars are going to continue to rise before our eyes in the next 10 years.

Sabalenka, the new Wuhan champion, has made the latest statement in support of that claim.

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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