Sabalenka v Stephens: Things we learned

World No.2 stopped a furious first-set comeback by the former finalist

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland-Garros 2023, fourth round©Philippe Montigny / FFT
 - Nick McCarvel

Up 5-0 in just 17 minutes of play, Aryna Sabalenka could be excused for letting her mind wander on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Sunday evening.

But some 40 minutes later the No.2 seed and reigning Australian Open champion was just two points away from dropping the first set, a resurgent Sloane Stephens buoyed by an electrified night session crowd.

This is a match the previous version of Sabalenka – before she became a Grand Slam winner – might have folded in. Not on this night.

Sabalenka withstood a roller-coaster first and then fended off another Stephens rally in set two, winning 7-6(5), 6-4, to advance to her first-ever Roland-Garros quarter-final.

“It was a crazy match,” a wide-smiling Sabalenka said afterwards.

Calmer Aryna remains a work-in-progress

There are still two versions of Sabalenka under the surface: A clear-headed and clean-hitting one, and another that can lose her rhythm – in an instant.

The first set showcased that, Sabalenka reeling off seven winners in those five first games against a shell-shocked Stephens. She’d then hit double that tally of unforced errors – 14! – over the next five games, undone by a more engaged American, but also by a penchant of going for too much too soon in rallies.

It’s an aspect of her game she’s spoken openly about improving: She’s one of the biggest hitters in the game, but after five years of being a “contender” at the majors, the Australian Open title this January changed that in her for the better.

Aryna Sabalenka, huitièmes de finale, Roland-Garros 2023©Philippe Montigny / FFT

“To come back from that score, it was unbelievable,” Sabalenka said of the Stephens fightback. “I think I was lucky to get that first set.”

“Not too crazy,” she added of her mental approach. “I’m working on staying calm.”

The calming mantra is working for a player with not one but two ferocious tiger tattoos: She now has a tour-leading 33 match-wins this season, and 11 at the majors – the latter being more than all of 2022.

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland-Garros 2023, fourth round©Philippe Montigny / FFT

She's firing, even in cool conditions

The nighttime conditions can be cool, slowing down the red clay for players, but the Parisian forecast for the next week is advantage Aryna: Sunny and hot.

That allows for more bounce off the racquet, which can only benefit Sabalenka: She hit 24 winners to just five from Stephens on the night, including 13 off the forehand, a scary good stat for the 25-year-old.

Her ability to take the racquet out of her opponent’s hand (quite literally) is jarring, and the first set was the closest set of Sabalenka’s Roland-Garros 2023, having yet to drop one this fortnight.

What worked particularly well for Sabalenka was the all-out attack on the forehand wing: She hit 120 forehands on the night, 13 of them for winners. That’s more than one winner for every 10 forehands hit.

Stephens hit zero forehand winners on the night.

Sloane recaptures her spark

While it’s Sabalenka who moves into the last eight, Stephens played some of her best tennis in recent history. This was her ninth fourth round effort in 12 Parisian appearances, and it’s the only major she’s been past the third round at since the Australian Open 2019.

But the 30-year-old ranked world No.30 had an impressive first week, upsetting Karolina Pliskova and fending off a pesky Yulia Putintseva to make the fourth round.

She led 4-2 in the first set tiebreak, but then appeared to pull off the gas: She hit two groundstroke errors into the net to give Sabalenka the only set point she’d require.

Will we see the former US Open champion at the top of the game again? She showed the tennis is still there. 

Aryna Sabalenka, Sloane Stephens, Roland-Garros 2023, fourth round©Philippe Montigny / FFT