Sabalenka v Kostyuk: Things we learned

The No.2 seed is up and running with authority in Paris

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland-Garros 2023, first round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Chris Oddo

Aryna Sabalenka is on a mission in Paris. The world No.2 seeks her first trip to the second week at Roland-Garros as she continues her quest to dethrone Iga Swiatek at the top of the WTA rankings. 

Now riding an eight-match Grand Slam winning streak, this year’s Australian Open champion aims to expand her empire and prove herself a juggernaut on the terre battue of Paris. 

So far, so good.

Here’s what we learned from Sabalenka’s 6-3, 6-2 first-round victory over Marta Kostyuk on Sunday.

Is she a title contender? Oh yes… 

If you polled a panel of experts prior to the start of the clay-court season, you’d be hard-pressed to find many that saw a proper challenger to Swiatek on the surface, and in particular at Roland-Garros, where the Pole is 21-2 lifetime with titles in 2020 and 2022. 

Status check: Sabalenka is currently emerging as a threat to Swiatek’s domination on clay. She split matches with the Polish world No.1 on the surface this spring, losing in the Stuttgart final but gaining revenge in Madrid. 

Here in Paris, where Sabalenka has never reached beyond the third round, things are setting up nicely after the 25-year-old’s impressive takedown of Kostyuk on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Sunday. 

The cagey Kostyuk, who reached the round of 16 in Paris in 2021, was considered a potential pitfall for Sabalenka, and she held her own early. But a 4-2 lead through six games would represent the end of the line for Kostyuk, as Sabalenka shook off her early jitters and bullet-trained her way past the Ukrainian.

Message sent: a different Aryna Sabalenka is taking the court in Paris this year. She’s already off to the races and playing the part of title contender to a tee. Her next opponent is 25-year-old qualifier Iryna Shymanovich.

Aryna Sabalenka, first round, Roland-Garros 2023© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Nerves came, and went 

First round, first match since becoming a Grand Slam champion, opening the tournament on Chatrier – what could go wrong? Apparently, not much. 

Make no mistake, there were early nerves for Sabalenka, who fell behind 3-2 in the first 18 minutes, thanks to pesky play from Kostyuk, and two ill-timed double faults of her own in the fifth game. 

But Sabalenka would soon find her groove. Two minutes later a spirited rally led to a seismic forehand that brought the Chatrier crowd to life. With the court now tilted in Sabalenka’s favour, she retaliated for 3-3 and never looked back from there.

"Emotionally, I was a little bit nervous at the beginning," Sabalenka said. "I was just trying to keep fighting, keep finding my rhythm, keep adjusting to the court."

Clicking through the gears, Sabalenka reeled off 10 of the final 12 games, ripped impressive winners with regularity and seized control of the match. 

Mission accomplished. Confidence gained. 

The game translates to clay 

Clay will never be her best surface, but Sabalenka continues to improve on the terre battue. With today’s win she improves to 10-2 on the season, and 46-22 lifetime on clay. She has yet to break through to the second week at Roland-Garros, but all the tools are in place to take her there – and beyond. 

Today the 25-year-old explained why she's set up for success on the Parisian clay in 2023.

“It used to be tougher because probably physically I wasn't ready for these kind of courts, because it's slower so you have to play longer points, so you have to be physically strong," Sabalenka said after her win.

"I worked a lot over last years to improve this part of my game. I think right now I'm ready more than ever for these kind of courts."

Watching her dominate Kostyuk, it’s easy to see how Sabalenka can thrive in Paris this year. The 2023 version of Sabalenka is ready to grind it out, and it bodes well for her chances.

Marta Kostyuk, Roland-Garros 2023, first round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT