Aryna Sabalenka has not won a single match at the Australian Open.
She is the third-favourite in betting markets to win the 2019 championship.
There is, quite clearly, a disconnect there; yet it’s a sign of just how quickly the Belarusian has risen that she is a realistic candidate to claim the season-opening grand slam.
“I’m telling you here, right now, that the winner of the Australian Open women’s side is going to be Sabalenka, O.K.?” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said this past week. “She’s going to win the Australian Open.”
If Australian fans know Sabalenka at all, they’re either passionate women’s tennis fans or watched Ash Barty’s opening round match at last year’s Australian Open.
It was a thriller, with Barty being surprisingly taken deep into a third set; but arguably it was more notable for Sabalenka’s grunting, which fans mocked and saw Barty herself say “she’s so loud”.
Ranked 73rd in the world coming into the season, Sabalenka performed so well in 2018 she now comes into the 2019 Australian Open seeded 11th. Mathematically, she could be world No.1 by the end of the tournament, though it would require a rather favourable series of results to occur.
Sabalenka was knocked out in the first round of the first three grand slams of 2018, but each time she was unfortunate enough to be drawn against a seeded opponent.
At other WTA events though, she starred, rising enough to earn the 26th seed at the US Open. She made it to the fourth round in New York, defeating No.5 Petra Kvitova and taking eventual champion Naomi Osaka to three sets.
Sabalenka won eight matches against top ten opponents in the second half of 2018 – the most on the WTA tour – including against 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki.
Sabalenka is powerful. Against Barty at Melbourne Park last year, she was measured as hitting her forehands on average eight kilometres faster than Serena Williams did on route to the 2017 championship.
“I have no reason to believe that Sabalenka will not win more than one Grand Slam. Why? I see two things. I see hunger and I see boldness,” Chris Evert said recently.
“Whether that’s fearlessness or what. It’s tied up, the boldness, fearlessness, confidence. That’s her swagger, I see that. Like this girl wants it. You can see it in her eyes. She’s pretty intense.”
Sabalenka’s form didn’t disappear over the Christmas break, either, as she won the first WTA event of the season in Shenzhen, China.
After Naomi Osaka’s breakthrough US Open win, experts are certainly willing to tip another youngster to make a surprise charge – even with Serena Williams back in the picture.
“I’d like Sabalenka’s chances much better of pulling off a surprise Slam win in Australia if everyone wasn’t predicting she was going to pull off a surprise Slam win in Australia,” New York Times tennis writer Christopher Clarey joked on Twitter.
The draw was rather kind to Sabalenka. She faces a qualifier in Round 1, and based on seeds she’s in line to face two women she has beaten within the last six months; Kvitova (in the fourth round) and Wozniacki (in the quarter-finals).
Sabalenka is also on the opposite side of the draw to Serena, her US Open vanquisher Osaka and world No.1 Simona Halep. She can only face one of them in the final, if they and her get there.
So, are you convinced she’s winning the title yet?
Note: Yes, technically, she has won one match in Melbourne – in the first round of 2017 qualifying.