A Quiet Storm

By Giri Nathan

2023 has been good to Aryna Sabalenka. She’s No. 2 in the world. She woke up on Thursday morning with 13 wins and no losses. First there was the warm-up title in Adelaide; then she won big in Melbourne, exorcising a number of demons en route. After some well-deserved rest she returned to competition this week in Dubai, playing her way to the quarterfinal. She has said that she hopes to bump Iga Swiatek out of the top ranking. And why not? Sabalenka can hardly be bothered to drop a set these days, a 26–2 tally during this win streak. In Dubai she’d cast aside Lauren Davis in under an hour. In the next round she triumphed with an acutely Jelena Ostapenko score line—2–6, 6–1, 6–1—over the combustible legend herself. It seemed all too possible that she’d meet Swiatek in the final this weekend and test her white-hot form against the consensus best player alive.

But that matchup was not to be. That’s because of Barbora Krejcikova, one of the greatest, quietest spoilers in the game, a player as emotionally absent on the court as Sabalenka is conspicuously everywhere. For a frame of reference you might simply compare each woman’s response to winning her first career singles Slam. Sabalenka in Melbourne last month: full-on collapse, tears, open disbelief at seeing her name engraved on the trophy, a bushel of quotes about renewed self-confidence. Meanwhile, Krejcikova at Roland-Garros in 2021: a workmanlike fist-pump, a glance back down at that last dodgy ball mark on match point, before remembering to raise her arms overhead as she paced to the net. (Not to be outdone—or underdone?—Elena Rybakina, winning her first major at Wimbledon 2022, mustered a half fist-pump and sigh while beelining to the handshake.)

But Krejcikova is more than her icy calm; she’s also one of the most broadly accomplished players on tour, with eight doubles majors to her name and sturdy singles performance across all surfaces, even if a lull has taken her down to No. 30 from her peak of No. 2. No matter the conditions or circumstances, her game is all loopy, loping ease. Sabalenka won their first set 6–0 in 30 minutes, and went up a break in the second set, before her foe developed an immunity to her pace and began redirecting it all over the court. To be as overtly dominant as Sabalenka is one gift in tennis; to be as nonchalantly inventive as Krejcikova is another, and she claimed the second-set tiebreak with a flattened-out backhand winner and never looked back. This 0–6, 7–6(2), 6–1 win was her first against Sabalenka in three meetings. It’s also the type of score line that Sabalenka probably hoped she’d left in her more volatile past.

This is familiar streak-breaking territory for Krejcikova. This past October it was Iga, firmly established as the top dog on tour, who had won 10 straight finals heading into their title fight in Ostrava. It took three hours and possibly the best match of the season, but Krejcikova snuck away with the trophy. Iga has won two more finals since, including last week in Doha. Both Swiatek and Krejcikova won their semifinals on Friday to line up a rematch tomorrow. Not the final Sabalenka envisioned at the start of the week, but for the rest of us, it’s just as juicy.

Above: Barbora Krejcikova is exuberant after winning the 2021 French Open. (Getty)


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