At the Australian Open, Aryna Sabalenka Offers a Master Class in Power Tennis

Power tennis is an assault on time. It robs an opponent of the time to react, to reach the ball, to get her spacing just right, to set her feet in place properly, to step into the ball, to swing unhurriedly, to think what’s next. Hard court, the slicker the better, is where power tennis thrives. Power employed on a fast surface can bring points to an end quickly. Big serves yield an ace, or a service winner, or a desperate return that sails long, or a weak return that the power player jumps on for a forehand return that won’t come back: the serve-plus-one, as the coaches say. Big ground strokes hit consistently enough make it difficult for an opponent to establish rhythm; this has a way of impeding the development of confidence—and rallies. A power player playing well wins not only games in a hurry but sets and matches, too.

Aryna Sabalenka, at age twenty-five, is now the preëminent power player in women’s tennis, and, in the Australian Open women’s final, on Saturday, she overwhelmed her opponent, China’s Qinwen Zheng, 6–3, 6–2. If it was drama you were after, or even a few lengthy, all-court rallies, it probably was a hard one to watch. But if you focussed on Sabalenka, directed your attention to her game, you were afforded a near-perfect master class: power at its finest, in tennis, anyway, is more beauty than brawn. It wasn’t always this way for Sabalenka. For years after she first caught the attention of the tennis world—in 2017, when as a tall, muscular teen-ager playing for the Belarusian team in the Fed Cup, she upset the U.S. star Sloane Stephens—her power was raw, her game not yet much of a game at all. She was prone to spraying balls in crucial moments; suffering yips on her serve; carrying on long, anxious backcourt conversations with herself. That has changed, markedly so in the past two years. There’s control and assurance to her approach and her ball striking, especially at hard-court majors. There’s also fluidity in her technique. Her long forehand swing is fierce and elegant—the way that she sets herself low and balanced, clears her non-hitting hand from her racquet, fully rotates her hips, takes the ball early, and sends it on its way, flat and deep. The ugliness comes on the other side of the net. Zheng’s forehand response to Sabalenka’s forehand was often late, and there were times when Sabalenka’s inside-out forehand to Zheng’s backhand seemed to knock the racquet from her grip.

Sabalenka spent the two weeks leading up to the final overwhelming nearly everyone she faced. The courts in Melbourne were playing fast, according to the players, and she felt at home. She won the Australian Open last year—her first major singles championship—in a thrilling three-set final against Elena Rybakina. This year, Sabalenka didn’t drop a set. Serena Williams didn’t drop a set in winning the Australian Open in 2017, and Sabalenka’s performance this year in Melbourne was Serena-like: unreturnable first serves, unforgiving service returns off opponents’ second serves, unreachable forehands and backhands. In the third round, she crushed the twenty-eighth seed, Lesia Tsurenko, 6–0, 6–0, and, in her four other matches before the semifinal, no opponent won more than five games.

In the semifinal, Coco Gauff gave her a fight. Gauff had defeated Sabalenka in the U.S. Open final last summer by playing remarkable defense—chasing down balls along the baseline and looping shots back to buy her time to get back into position. It kept the crowd in the match, a crowd roaring for Gauff and fraying Sabalenka’s nerves. Gauff played strong defense during stretches of the semifinal, and Sabalenka’s tennis was scratchy in several games—but in the big moments, especially the first-set tiebreak, Sabalenka was more herself, which is to say, too much. Gauff, like the others, fell in straight sets.

Zheng navigated her way to this year’s final by playing no one ranked inside the Top Fifty in the world. Iga Świątek (No. 1), Elena Rybakina (No. 3), Jessica Pegula (No. 5) were all in Zheng’s half of the draw, and all crashed out of the tournament before Zheng might have faced them. Zheng is only twenty-one, a year and a half older than Gauff. She’s been a young comer the past two seasons, watched closely and hopefully by women’s tennis, which has seen China as a significant part of its future since Li Na won the French Open in 2011. Zheng is athletic and unwaveringly competitive, with a strong, if inconsistent, serve and a penetrating topspin forehand. She will rise to the Top Ten as a result of her run in Melbourne, and, as unpredictable as the women’s game can be, it would be surprising if she were not to become something of a fixture in the last days of Grand Slams.

Zheng was never really in Saturday’s final. Sabalenka began with an effortless love hold, and then quickly broke Zheng’s serve in a five-point game. She got sloppy for a moment in the following game, and suddenly was down 0–40. Was this actually going to be a match? But Zheng could convert none of her three break-point opportunities, and never got another for the remainder of the set. Her only effective weapon was her first serve. She aced Sabalenka six times in the first set, and a number of other times, particularly with her slice serve, drew feeble returns. But Sabalenka took control of her service games early and consistently, dictating from the center of the baseline, her ground strokes getting on to Zheng suddenly, sharply, concussing her racquet head.

The match grew more lopsided in the second set, as Zheng’s serve failed her, and fast: Sabalenka broke her in the opening game, when Zheng double-faulted three times. Sabalenka broke her again in the fifth game, Zheng double-faulting twice—and the match was as good as over. The last game of the set was the best of the final, hard-fought, going to deuce three times. Zheng earned one last break opportunity; Sabalenka saved it with an ace. Moments later, she ended the match and secured her second Grand Slam championship with her kind of shot—a forehand that Zheng never had time to put her racquet on. ♦

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