June 21, 2024

ROME — World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka came from a set down to hold off American qualifier Katie Volynets to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the second round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

Here were the lingering questions on our minds as Sabalenka struck her 34th winner of the night to close out the 2-hour and 15-minute comeback.

How did Aryna Sabalenka avoid the upset?
The signs were there that this could be a tough outing for Sabalenka. Twelve months ago, she came into Rome off the high of her rousing three-set win over Iga Swiatek in the final of Madrid. She proceeded to lose to No.134 Sofia Kenin in straight sets.

This year, she came in hungry to put the disappointment of squandering three match points to lose to Swiatek in Madrid behind her. At her pre-tournament press conference, she sounded congested and hoarse. She did not look sharp out of the gates on Friday night.

“Honestly, for someone who has been sick for four days and couldn’t get out of bed I think I played really quite well,” Sabalenka said. “In the first set I just didn’t feel my tennis at all, I couldn’t feel the rhythm. Just different conditions. So in the second set I said whatever, just do your best with what you have today.”

It’s been a quietly solid season for Volynets, who has looked primed for early-round upsets at the tour’s biggest stops. The 22-year-old Californian notched the first Top 10 win of her career over Ons Jabeur at Indian Wells. After a successful qualifying campaign to earn her main-draw spot, Volynets beat Wang Yafan in straight sets to set up her Sabalenka showdown.

Playing a contained and solid baseline game, Volynets took the 51-minute opening set thanks to Sabalenka’s flurry of errors. Looking to blast her way past Volynets, Sabalenka struck 15 unforced errors from the forehand side and nine on the backhand. Volynets countered with a combined eight.

Sabalenka’s frustration was evident throughout the opening set, but she reigned in her power in the second set and forced Volynets to play through the points. As she increased her margins and played through the middle of the court, the tactical change paid off. After saving five break points to hold to 2-1, Sabalenka settled down to break Volynets in her last two service games of the set and force a decider.

Did Madrid help or hinder Sabalenka?
Ultimately, Sabalenka’s battle-tested road to the Madrid final boosted her to this win. Yes, she came up short to Swiatek in the final, but the Australian Open champion pulled herself out of a slump in Madrid thanks to a series of hard-fought three-set wins. Five of her six matches in Madrid went the distance, and she came through four of them, beating Magda Linette, Robin Montgomery, Miami champion Danielle Collins, and No.4 Elena Rybakina.

That clarity and ability to problem solve was the key on Friday night. After seeing her shots land wildly wide and long for the first hour, she settled into a solid Plan B. This isn’t a match she wins a month ago.

How important was this win?
Huge. Not only does the win ease any concerns about a Madrid hangover, it also erases the scar tissue from last year’s early exit to Kenin. And on a day when her chief rival in the bottom half of the draw, Rybakina, withdrew due to illness, Sabalenka fights on as the favorite to make the final.

Adding to the intrigue is the status of her No.2 ranking, which is under threat for a second tournament in a row from No.3 Coco Gauff. It may be just one ranking spot, but there are significant implications for the French Open. Whoever goes into Paris at No.2 won’t face three-time champion Swiatek until the final.

It won’t necessarily get easier for Sabalenka. She’ll face Australian Open semifinalist Dayana Yastremska in the third round. The Ukrainian saved match points to beat Laura Siegemund earlier in the day. But as Madrid showed, Sabalenka is more than capable of playing herself into form at any given tournament. Dodging this first hurdle was a big step.

“I played two incredible weeks in Madrid,” Sabalenka said. “I had so many tough matches there. I guess [getting sick] was the payoff. But I’m happy that I started feeling better and I could get on court and keep fighting. Hopefully, with the days, I’ll feel better tennis-wise and health-wise.”

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