We are moving through one of the most uncertain portions of the tennis calendar, the two-week period preceding the Australian Open.
There are no Premier Mandatories in this fortnight, also no Premier 5s. There are no Masters 1000 tournaments. Just a few weeks of tennis, relatively free of prestige and overhwelming weight, before the big show in Melbourne Park.
What happens in these two weeks can certainly carry over into the Australian Open, but assigning a lot of weight to these weeks is a risk at best, unfair overreach at worst. Tennis professionals — after the offseason — are getting their feet wet.
This is the land of the small sample size.
The Australian Open and Wimbledon both have very brief lead-up periods before they begin. The obvious difference between the two majors is that Wimbledon comes in the middle of the tennis season. Players haven’t been playing for multiple months on grass, but they have been playing for multiple months. Players haven’t been carrying months of match play into Australia.
This means that what happens in the two weeks before the Australian Open happens on… an island. Figuratively, of course. These are isolated results, part of a very small sample.
Take meaning from these results at your peril.
With that point having been established, let me ask you a question as Australian Open warm-ups continue in the tennis world: If you were to pick a WTA player who needed a decent result before Melbourne, which one would it be?
Sloane Stephens would not be a terrible answer, given how adrift she was for portions of 2019. Anastasija Sevastova lost steam in 2019. That is not a horrible answer, either. Those are perfectly solid and sensible responses.
Yet, my choice would be Aryna Sabalenka, who has a knack for winning in China in autumn but has not shown a knack for winning consistently in pre-U.S. Open venues. Sabalenka did virtually nothing in the first half of 2019 after her brilliant second half of the 2018 season. If one WTA player needs a good start out of the blocks in 2020, Sabalenka rates as a top example.
No, I’m not going to say or even imply that Sabalenka’s Australian Open campaign has been undercut by her loss to Kristyna Pliskova in Shenzhen. I will say, however, that Sabalenka will not enter Melbourne with as much belief. She will have to find — and earn back — that belief in her first few matches. She won’t come to Melbourne Park knowing this tournament is hers to conquer. There’s a difference.
Sabalenka will carry a little more internal pressure into the Australian Open, compared to some of her peers. That internal pressure could motivate her to be great and surprise us all. Yet, among WTA players who are trying to regroup to varying degrees after 2019 setbacks, this loss in the land of the small sample size feels a little less ordinary than others.
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