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WTA

ARYNA SABALENKA: TALENT, POWER AND LIKEABILITY

by Paul Rivard

January 31, 2023

Much of the WTA Top 40 is expected to descend on Montréal for the 2023 National Bank Open presented by Rogers. Among the top seeds (and heavy favourites) is the powerful, authentic and engaging Aryna Sabalenka.

She’s a tennis personality—a player who’s risen to the top of her sport but stands out in all sorts of ways owing to her affability and sensitivity.

More on that later.

It certainly isn’t a stretch to add Aryna’s name to the list of potential Canadian Open champions. On January 30, 2023, she ascended to the World No.2 ranking, which she earned 48 hours after winning her very first Grand Slam at the Australian Open.

Photo : AFP

Barring an injury or a slump in the next six months, she should still be hovering around the top by the time the NBO rolls around, from August 4 to 14.

Finally is a word that likely crossed her mind during the 24 seconds she lay on the court in Rod Laver Arena—temporarily dubbed Rod Laver Aryna by fans. After she secured the title and collapsed with relief and happiness, she got up to hug her opponent Elena Rybakina, who’d walked over to congratulate her.Finally, indeed! Especially for those of us who’ve been following her career since the very beginning, including me and my former colleague and NBO tournament director Valérie Tétreault back when we were commentators covering Billie Jean King Cup.

In 2017, the BJK Cup Final pitted the United States against Belarus, which had dispatched Aliaksandra Sasnovich and a 19-year-old Aryna Sabalenka. Despite pushing the American pair to the brink in a fifth and decisive doubles match, they ended up losing to CoCo Vandeweghe and Shelby Rogers.

Photo : AP

Even so, in singles, Sabalenka went 1–1, defeating Sloane Stephens but falling to Vandeweghe. A few weeks later, she wrapped up the season as No.73 with her first WTA title (Mumbai).

A future star, Valérie and I thought to ourselves.

A year and a half later, in January 2021, Aryna barged into the Top 10 and has dropped out only on a few rare occasions. This is her second tenure as No.2 after a stint from August 22, 2021, to February 20, 2022.

Does this first major set her on a course to No.1? We wish her luck. But so many injuries could creep up, not to mention all the contenders vying for the throne. And what of her mercurial temperament?

Aryna Sabalenka has been on her share of emotional rollercoaster rides. Case in point: the Dmitry Tursunov episode.

After a rough patch in August 2019, she reiterated that her relationship with her coach was stronger than ever, only to announce they were parting ways three days later. Barely 48 hours after that announcement, she addressed him directly in a heartfelt IG post.

Photo : WTA

It’s true that her sensitivity will always make her more likeable and keep her close to her fans. She’s the type of player we all love to follow at tournaments.

Unless, of course, she eliminates a Canadian, like she did on Centre Court at IGA Stadium when she got the better of our Rebecca Marino.

But that’s tennis, isn’t it?

Da chutkaj sustrečy, Aryjana!

See you soon, Aryna!

Photo : Getty

DRY RUN

Photo : The Age

The photo above was taken on January 24 in Melbourne.

There was a sudden downpour, and by the time the roof over Rod Laver Arena had closed, it was too late. The quarterfinal bout between Elena Rybakina and Jelena Ostapenko was suspended so the court could be dried.

I think we were all a bit surprised by the Australians’ drying method. While it’s common to see ball crews wiping down the court with towels, the equipment that was brought in seemed light years behind what’s been in use for years at the National Bank Open.

At the AO, squeegees merely pushed the water, while the sponge rollers used here absorb some of the water and repel the rest.

Photos : Paul Rivard / The Age

The enormous (and numerous) dryers affectionately known as ghostbusters by NBO organizers are fantastic drying machines, but there was no such apparatus in Melbourne (a Grand Slam!).

Photos : The Age / Paul Rivard

Admittedly, rain isn’t as much a concern in Australia in January as it is in Canada in August, since rainfall is at its lowest during the southern summer. Soggy courts are unusual in Melbourne during the AO, just as they are in Indian Wells during the BNP Paribas Open.

I should add that there are three covered courts at Melbourne Park. Still, the heavy showers on January 24 must have been so sudden that organizers didn’t think to close the roof just in case. Instead, they got stuck with a 30-minute delay.

But back to the ball crews, who do such a great job getting the court—and especially those white lines that don’t dry like the rest of the surface and can remain very slippery—ready for play.

At the NBO, the ball people put the finishing touches on the court. But at the AO, they get to work right from the start, when the court is still wet.

Photos : Paul Rivard / The Age

Regardless of the method, the teams who manage to dry the courts in record time after a cloudburst deserve our admiration. And no one could ever say they just threw in the towel.

For more on the tournament vs. the weather showdown, here’s a full account from last summer’s NBO.