Sabalenka poised for Grand Slam breakthrough

 - Chris Oddo

Third-seeded Belarusian shares her newfound perspective that can help end her woes at the majors

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Aryna Sabalenka is primed for her Grand Slam breakthrough in Paris. All that’s left to be done is the doing.

The No.3 seed made that much clear by deftly maneuvering through the clay-court season, reaching the final in Stuttgart and claiming the trophy in Madrid, as she compiled a record of 11-2 on the red clay. 

"I'm really happy with the result on the clay courts so far," the huge-hitting 23-year-old said on Friday. "I would say I improved a lot. Of course it's given me a lot of confidence, but tomorrow is a new day and you never know what to expect."

Now comes the ultimate test. How to parlay that scorching-hot form into a deep run at a Slam? Sabalenka's inability to reach a quarter-final in her first 13 Grand Slam appearances has forced her to look inward. As much as her game has improved on the court, it is her mentality that could be the key to unlocking her true potential.

The first step? Not making mountains out of molehills.

"This is just another tournament," said, Sabalenka, who faces qualifier and former world No.20 Ana Konjuh in the opening round in Paris. "As always, I just have to show my level and be there 100 per cent and wins will come."

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Sabalenka says it has taken a conscious effort on her part to dial down the stress and expectations in her own mind.

"This is what I mentally changed," she said. "I think it was the biggest improvement, because before I was really thinking a lot about Grand Slams, that I really want to win it, and all these things, which does not really help you to win the Grand Slam. You just put a lot of pressure on yourself.

"It's not really helping. So the biggest improvement was to stop thinking about the winning of Grand Slam. Just to start working. And that's it."

The proof will come over the next few weeks, but many believe that the the worm has already turned for Sabalenka. 

“I definitely think the breakthrough is coming,” former Roland-Garros champion and Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier said in a conference call this week.

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland Garros 2021, pre-tournament press conference© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Courier believes that Sabalenka’s offensive power is what will set her apart this year in Paris. 

“I think she can be a real force,” he said. “For me, it's one of those scenarios where if she's confident, she is tough for anybody to beat because she can cover the court and she can dominate from the centre.”

Sabalenka has already made quite a breakthrough in 2021. She transformed herself from a middling clay-court player with a career record of 14-12 on the surface, to a bona fide Roland-Garros contender. How? 

The Belarusian says she didn’t need to change much in her game. 

“For sure you have to follow your game, because this is your game, this is the game you are confident with and you have to stay there,” she said in Stuttgart this spring. “Just be ready for long rallies, and physically you have to be ready and also mentally, because the ball will come back.” 

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Also contributing to her success is the confidence gained from notching wins over former Roland-Garros champions Simona Halep and Ashleigh Barty. Those triumphs, recorded in Stuttgart and Madrid respectively, were an important sign for Sabalenka. 

“For sure it says that I am on the right way and I'm doing the right things,” she said. “I think this big work which I put [into] my game, it's a good step forward and gave me a lot of power, especially on the clay court."

The rest will play out on the terre battue over the next two weeks, for better or for worse. For the record, Sabalenka is expecting better.

"I expect a great level for myself and a good fight," she said. "I feel ready for Roland-Garros - I will do everything I can to go as far as I can."