Sabalenka strikes to crash Konjuh comeback

Third seed finds composure amid the fire to reach second round in Paris

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland-Garros 2021 first round©️ Philippe Montigny/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

There is no second guessing when Aryna Sabalenka’s emotions run the gamut from frustration to jubilation in the heat of battle.

The Belarusian can’t help but wear her heart on her sleeve – a precarious balance between buoyancy and boilover.

So it was no surprise to see the relief so palpable on Court Suzanne-Lenglen on Sunday, when in a battle of big-striking 23-year-olds she withstood an early scare to see off dangerous Croatian qualifier, Ana Konjuh, 6-4, 6-3.

The balancing act was put to the test when she twice went down a break in the opening set, but the No.3 seed found composure amid the fire to pull through.

“Well, I have a lot of experience of these kind of matches. I mean, emotionally,” she grinned. “That's why sometimes I scream ‘Come on’, or ‘Let's go’, because I find this character inside of me that I have to keep trying and don't waste my energy.

“In some point I understand that it's too much emotions, like bad and good, so I have to start thinking about what should I do to win this match? I just put my focus in another place. It's helped me to find this, can I say, calmness? Yeah.”

The chasm of 140 ranking places between the pair was deceiving. Konjuh was an opponent on the comeback from a fourth elbow surgery who had reached her first tour final since 2017 a matter of days ago in Belgrade, only for a hip injury to scuttle her title hopes.

The former world No.20 powered through qualifying without the loss of a set to secure her first Grand Slam main draw berth since Wimbledon 2018 and had won 17 of her previous 22 matches.

While only five months older than Sabalenka, Konjuh burst onto the scene younger and drew more attention as a junior Grand Slam champion, but those elbow injuries had repeatedly derailed her since.

“I would say it wasn't great level today from me, but I kept trying, kept fighting, kept trying to find my game,” Sabalenka said. “It was a little bit [of a] nervous game, especially in the beginning, because I felt like everything is not going well, and I don't really feel my game.

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland-Garros 2021 first round©️ Philippe Montigny/FFT

“So many mistakes. But I'm really happy in the end of the first set I kind of could find the rhythm. I won the first set, and then everything started to be a little bit better.

“But it was tough match. She's really aggressive. Sometimes it was really tough to play under the pressure, under her pressure. I'm just really happy with this win.”

The free-swinging Belarusian’s learning curve has become more mental than anything overtly technical in recent times. She has proven this year she has what it takes against the best in the business, especially on clay where patience had too often deserted her before.

Wins over the likes of Roland-Garros champions Simona Halep en route to the Stuttgart final and world No.1 Ashleigh Barty a week later in the Madrid final confirmed her credentials as she racked up an 11-2 record on red clay coming into Paris.

Seven years have passed since Maria Sharapova claimed a clay-court lead-up trophy and went on to triumph at Roland-Garros.

No woman has done so since and if Sabalenka is to repeat the Sharapova Madrid-Paris double, she will only be focused on her next match against her good friend and Fed Cup teammate, Aliaksandra Sasnovich or French teenager Diane Parry.

“My mentality is kind of, 'what happened in the past, happened in the past',” she said. “Tomorrow’s a new day, you just have to keep working and showing your level and fighting for every point and you never know what could happen.

“My expectations for Roland-Garros is to fight for every point no matter what, do everything I can to go as far as I can.”

Fellow maiden major contenders and proven performers are warned, Sabalenka is off the mark. The balancing act begins again.