The Belarusian followed “her feelings” and hammered her way to her third straight title, in Abu Dhabi. How far can she follow them in 2021?
You have to feel for [Veronika] Kudermetova, don’t you?” one of the commentators calling the Abu Dhabi final said last Wednesday.
You did, really. It was only the start of the second set, but the young Russian had already endured a terrible pounding from her opponent, Aryna Sabalenka. Worse, there seemed to be no end in sight to the barrage. Serves, returns, forehands, backhands, smashes: Sabalenka was sending them all screaming past Kudermetova. Even when Sabalenka didn’t hit the ball for an outright winner, she made it too hot for her opponent to handle.
In a little more than an hour, Sabalenka had a 6-2, 6-2 win, and her third straight title. She has won her last 15 matches, and risen to No. 7 in the rankings. This was Sabalenka’s ninth career title, a sneaky high number for a woman who is still just 22 and has yet to come close to reaching her potential at the Slams. So far her partnership with her coach, Anton Dubrov, which started last year, has been a rousing, career-clarifying success.
“Every final is really something special,” Sabalenka said, “and I would say finals are a different competition. This final was really nice, and I would say a really fast game.”
Fast indeed. Sabalenka took control of rallies from the first shot, and ended them with brutally rapid efficiency. The key, it seemed, was not to try for risky winners, but to maximize her natural power advantage. In the first set, Sabalenka hit just five winners and made just two errors; but she forced Kudermetova into 13 misses. Sabalenka hammered her service returns up the middle, pushed Kudermetova onto her back foot, and went from there.
“In the first couple of games, I was trying to see what she was doing on her serve,” Sabalenka said. “Then, I don’t know, I just felt where she was serving, and I was just following my feelings, and it worked really well.”
“Following her feelings.” Now the question will be: Can she keep following them as she heads into a two-week quarantine in Melbourne?
Sabalenka is very tough for anyone to beat when she’s in this mode. The knock has always been that when she’s not feeling it, not in a good groove, not smashing winners at will, she doesn’t have a Plan B or a reliable way to win. And we’ve definitely had our high hopes dashed by her before.
In 2019, she started the year with a title in Shenzhen before losing early at the Australian Open. In 2020, she was looking good to start the season, and then she lost in the first round in Melbourne. Despite her nine titles, Sabalenka still hasn’t reached the quarterfinals at a major.
On Wednesday, the Abu Dhabi commentators talked about how Sabalenka needs to add variety to her game to have more consistent success. Watching her, though, I wondered if the key is for her to be... more like she is. To have no hesitation about striking first and striking hard. It’s when she has doubts, when she’s not following her feelings, that trouble begins.
So to start 2021, let’s look on the bright side with Sabalenka. While she hasn’t come through at the Slams yet, she also hasn’t let that bother her or keep her from winning elsewhere. I liked the way she ended her match on Wednesday: She walked over to her coaches, and the three of them hugged, smiled, and traded quiet fist-pumps. There was a sense of satisfaction from all of them about a job well done, and a sense that there are going to be more, and bigger, celebrations to come.