Sabalenka picks up where she left off – her 15th win and third straight title – as tennis returns

Young Briton Francesca Jones qualifies for first Major draw

Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka (Photo: Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open)

Just three women’s tournaments have been played since the French Open at the start of October last year, and with the completion of the first event of 2021 in Abu Dhabi this week, Aryna Sabalenka has won all of them.

Since losing to Ons Jabeur in the third round at Roland Garros, the powerful 22-year-old Sabalenka has swept to the Ostrava Open Premier, then the Linz International, and now the brand new WTA500 in Abu Dhabi—the first champion in a revamped start to the season.

With the Covid pandemic still raging around the world, the Australian Open was postponed by three weeks to allow for two weeks of quarantine for all arriving players and their teams, including those coming through qualifying this week in Doha and Dubai.

Both the ATP and WTA thus revamped their calendars to ensure other competitive opportunities in place of the cancelled events that usually usher in the Australian Open—the likes of Brisbane, Auckland, and Hobart. The Abu Dhabi Open was one of the biggest, a 64-woman draw that has boasted four top-10 players led by the reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin.

But it has been the No4 seed Sabalenka who continued her 2020 form through this impressive draw, beating three seeds and finally topping the unseeded 23-year-old Russian, Veronika Kudermetova, 6-2, 6-2, to win her ninth career title.

The Belarusian, who entered the tournament at a career-high No9 will now rise to No7, and will surely reinforce her status as one of the favourites for the title come the main event in Melbourne. After all, every title thus far has come on hard courts, including Doha last February.

Sabalenka took just 26 minutes to win the first set, breaking for 4-2 and then for the 6-2 opener, and she began the second set with another break. Kudermetova got an immediate break back, only to hand the advantage straight back, 3-1. Sabalenka had the chance to serve it out at 5-1, but could not convert a match point, and was instead broken. However, she made no such mistake in the next game, converting her second chance for the title, 6-2.

She afterwards admitted that she had few expectations of winning in Abu Dhabi:

“I’m surprised that I could compete at this level in these conditions because I was practising indoors before coming here… I’m actually surprised I won this tournament. And really happy to start the season with a title.

“Some matches, I didn’t feel my serve, some matches I didn’t feel my forehand or backhand, but I would just keep fighting, finding my shots, and this is what I’m really proud of, and really happy with this title.”

The work does not let up, though, despite the 14-day quarantine that faces her in Australia.

“I think I will have a few days off to recover, but then I think I will keep working on some things, not just staying in shape. If you stop working on improving your game, you will lose something…

“My coach has asked for a bike for my room [in Australia] so I can keep on exercising [laughing]—think I will be cycling all 14 days!”

On the men’s tour, there have been two events this week, and in Antalya, there was good news for the ‘home team’ in Australia, after the 23-ranked Alex de Minaur came through second seed David Goffin for a title bout against Alexander Bublik. And there, his 23-year-old opponent was forced to retire at 0-2 down to concede the match after twisting his ankle in a long semi-final three-set win over Jeremy Chardy.

It is a fourth title for de Minaur, still just 21, and sets him up well for his home Major after missing the tournament last year with injury. Meanwhile, the final run of Bublik will take him to a new career high of 45.

At the ATP’s other event, the rescheduled Delray Beach in Florida, No4 seed Hubert Hurkacz will take on the 20-year-old unseeded Sebastian Korda, who put out Briton Cameron Norrie in the semis. Korda, a former No1 junior who broke into the top 200 last year to reach 116, also beat No2 seed John Isner and No5 seed Tommy Paul, to set a new career high of 103. His first title would propel him to around 87, while Hurkacz could re-enter the top 30 should he win his second title.

Briton Francesca Jones heads to Australia for first time

As the Australian Open qualifying reaches its conclusion, one of the first to seal a place in the main draw was 20-year-old Briton Francesca Jones, who beat Lu Jia Jing for the loss of just one game to qualify for a Major for the first time.

Jones’s impressive rise in the ranks from 321 last August to what will be 219 this week has been all the more notable due to the rare genetic condition that meant she was born with three fingers and a thumb on each hand, three toes on her right foot, and four on her left foot.

As she told the BBC Sport ahead of her Australian qualifying campaign:

“The way I see it is that I am just playing the game with a different set of cards… But it doesn’t mean those cards still can’t win the game.”

She has had numerous operations, but was never deterred from her ambition: Indeed the suggestion that she would never play tennis seems only to have spurred her on. She went on in that same interview:

“When someone does say to you at eight, nine years old that you can’t do something, I suppose most people would be heartbroken, but I just tried to take it on the chin and see how I could prove that person wrong.”

Now playing with a lighter racket and smaller grip, she has reached a new milestone, her first main-draw place on the main tour—and her first ever trip to Australia.

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