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Aryna Sabalenka problem-solves into second straight Slam semi at US Open
The No. 2 seed will aim to knock out semifinal debutante Leylah Fernandez and reach her first major final in New York.
Published Sep 08, 2021
WATCH: Sabalenka reached a long-awaited first major semifinal at Wimbledon, and has made it two in a row in New York.
NEW YORK—Ninety minutes on Arthur Ashe Stadium wasn’t enough for Aryna Sabalenka. After handily dispatching Barbora Krejcikova, the lone major champion left in the US Open women’s draw, 6-1, 6-4, the Belarusian headed to the practice court—still wearing her match outfit.
It was a light hit, one primarily focused on refining her inimitable service action, but the decision illustrates just how much the No. 2 seed is on a mission in Flushing Meadows as she stands on the precipice of a maiden major final.
“I think my team wasn't happy with the level today,” she joked in post-match press, wearing a shirt with the phrase “I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It” emblazoned across the chest.
“No, but for real, I feel like I didn't move well today and I needed extra balls a little bit to move, a little bit to feel my legs, to feel the court. Also, my serve was really I wouldn't say terrible but was really bad today. I was trying to find the rhythm.”
The 23-year-old has been known to take time in meeting her own high standards, having played her first 14 Grand Slam main draws without reaching the quarterfinals. She at last ended the drought earlier this summer at Wimbledon, where she played a convincing if unsatisfying semifinal with Czech conqueror Karolina Pliskova.
When something is not working well, what I actually improved in is that I'm trying to find something else to win the game. This is also a huge improvement I did. I'm really happy that I'm not really focusing on the problem during the match. I'm instead focusing on what should I do to win this match. I'm not really panicking or, like, stressing about it. I'm just trying to stay smart and professional. Aryna Sabalenka
“The only thing it's changed that I'm not really thinking about the draw, like how far can I go,” she explained. “I just start enjoying every match. It sounds simple, but with all the things going around, it's not easy to focus on each match, to enjoy it, to enjoy every fight, every challenge.
“This is everything I changed, I would say. My focus is like step by step. It's working well.”
Sabalenka has looked stronger and leaps more mature since leaving the All England Club, reaching the semifinals in Montréal and has only dropped one set through five matches in New York. Facing down all three of her projected seeds, she blitzed Danielle Collins and former doubles partner Elise Mertens to book the quarterfinal clash and Ashe Stadium debut with Krejcikova, who admittedly came into the final eight under an injury cloud from her fourth-round finish against Garbiñe Muguruza.
“I just don't want to take the match from Aryna because she was just playing really well,” Krejcikova explained after the match. “Yeah, I mean, the tank is empty. I was just fighting for every single ball. There is not much I can say. Last couple of days and nights, they've been really difficult with everything that happened.”
It was a loaded explanation from Krejcikova, whose long-awaited Arthur Ashe debut was blighted first by the sudden illness that caused her to take a medical timeout late in the second set, and later by Muguruza’s handshake recriminations at the net.
“I just didn't expect that I'm going to be accused like this. I just felt right now that I got really humiliated by a Grand Slam champion, which I've never seen.”
The reigning Roland Garros champion gamely returned Tuesday night and battled through some close opening games—exchanging breaks with the No. 2 seed early into their night-session encounter—but the Belarusian always had an answer, even when her own weapons occasionally failed her.
“When something is not working well, what I actually improved in is that I'm trying to find something else to win the game,” Sabalenka mused. “This is also a huge improvement I did. I'm really happy that I'm not really focusing on the problem during the match. I'm instead focusing on what should I do to win this match. I'm not really panicking or, like, stressing about it.
“I'm just trying to stay smart and professional,” she added with a wry smile, perhaps unwittingly referencing the “unprofessional” accusation Muguruza lobbed at Krejcikova.
“Of course, maybe she was a little bit more tired because she had a really tough match against Muguruza,” Sabalenka said. “Something happened there in the end of the second set, I heard. Maybe that's why I felt like she didn't play her best. Maybe I was just lucky that she had a really tough one against Muguruza.”
Sabalenka will next turn her attention to surprise semifinalist Leylah Fernandez, who won an epic over Elina Svitolina, 7-6 in the third.
“I was practicing today, and we didn't really need to watch the score because we heard the crowd really yelling.”
Where she and Pliskova were even contenders at Wimbledon, the world No. 2 will come in as a heavy favorite in her first meeting with the ostensibly unimposing Canadian, who added Svitolina to a trilogy of upsets that already included defending champion Naomi Osaka and former No. 1 Angelique Kerber.
“I don't really try to compare a player to someone else—‘She's playing like her so you have to do the same things.’—no, it’s not working like this because we all different. I'm just trying to watch their matches.
“She's playing well, moving well,” she added of Fernandez. “I would say it's nothing to lose for her.”
She may be wrong, but I doubt it. Either way, one can only applaud the single-minded focus of Sabalenka, as it has undeniably gotten her this far. Should she continue to put problem-solving above perfection, she’s poised to go even farther.