Australian Open champ Sabalenka hunts more slam glory
Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka will arrive at the French Open in the best form of her career with a chance of snatching the world No.1 ranking from Iga Swiatek and convinced she has banished her grand slam demons for good.
Perhaps the only player on the women's circuit with power to rival that of the now departed Serena Williams, Sabalenka until this year suffered from a maddening inconsistency that kept her from landing the game's major prizes.
Aggressively pounding down her huge serves and thunderous forehands one moment, a tearful mess the next, the 25-year-old was volubly more frustrated than anyone at her inability to maintain her best tennis throughout a contest or tournament.
She started this year, however, with a winning streak of 10 matches that won her a title in Adelaide and took her to the final of the Australian Open, where she lost her first set of 2023 but beat Elena Rybakina to claim a first grand slam title.
Rybakina got a measure of revenge in the final at Indian Wells in March and Sabalenka lost to Swiatek, again in the final, in her first outing on clay in Stuttgart.
It was Sabalenka, however, who triumphed when she met Swiatek again in the title decider at the Madrid Open two weeks ago.
Three titles, one a grand slam, and two further finals in eight tournaments this year tell the story of a player in her prime, even if there is still the odd blip like falling at the first hurdle to Sofia Kenin in Rome two weeks ago.
As she showed in Madrid, Sabalenka's record of never having been past the third round at Roland Garros belies her increasing comfort on the red dirt surface.
"In 2021 when I first made the Stuttgart final, I thought, oh, probably claycourt actually suits my game," the Belarusian explained.
"I have extra time. It's not super fast, so I can go for my powerful shots, because I have not so many, but I have a lot of time. It's like not just bomb, bomb ..."
Instead, she said at Stuttgart, her lack of success at the only claycourt grand slam was more about her own mindset than the surface.
"I was just struggling with the grand slams before," she said.
"It was more about me really wanting to win a grand slam and me getting really crazy in matches (rather) than something about the clay. I really like the courts there, and hopefully this year I'll be able to do well."
Her Melbourne Park triumph not only convinced Sabalenka she could win majors, it also started the process of cutting into Swiatek's lead at the top of the world rankings.
As defending champion, the Pole is defending a lot of points in Paris and Sabalenka is guaranteed to take over the coveted top spot for the first time if Swiatek fails to reach the semi-finals.