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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, January 22, 2023

 
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A red-hot Aryna Sabalenka raised her 2023 record to 8-0 sweeping Belinda Bencic 7-5, 6-2 to storm into her first AO quarterfinal.

Photo credit: Robert Prange/Getty

Tennis tedium is Aryna Sabalenka's stated goal for this Australian Open.

Sabalenka is merging monotony with major volatility in Melbourne Park.

More: Rybakina Sweeps Swiatek out of AO

Driving the ball with bruising intent, Sabalenka slammed 32 winners beating Belinda Bencic 7-5, 6-2 to charge into the Australian Open quarterfinals for the first time.

The 24-year-old Sabalenka said her goal is to be "a little bit boring on court."

Tennis Express

If this is her idea of boring, dull has seldom been so dangerous.

In a battle of Adelaide champions, Bencic burst out to a 4-2 start before Sabalenka started stepping into her shots and unloading on her forehand.

The woman wearing the tiger tattoo on her left forearm fired 15 forehand winners compared to two for the Swiss as Sabalenka surged through 11 of the final 14 games in an 87-minute triumph.




"I'm super happy with the win today; she's an unbelievable player," Sabalenka said. "She plays so good I'm super happy with the level today, just really happy with this win.

"It takes me a little while to understand that negative emotions not going to help you on the court. You just have to stay strong and believe no matter what and do everything you can to get back in the score. I'm super happy with my mind-set today."

A red-hot Sabalenka raised her 2023 record to 8-0 sweeping all 16 sets she's played.

The fifth-seeded Sabalenka will be a favorite against quarterfinal opponent Donna Vekic though the Croatian has dominated their head-to-head. Vekic has won five of six meetings with Sabalenka, whose lone victory came in the 2019 San Jose semifinals.

The 64th-ranked Croatian fended off 17-year-old Czech Linda Fruhvirtova 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 to reach her second major quarterfinal and first since the 2019 US Open. Vekic erased five of six break points in a two hour, seven-minute triumph.



The subplot of today's first match on Rod Laver Arena was the presence of Bencic's coach Dmitry Tursunov, who served a successful sting as Sabalenka's former coach. Knowing his former charge's strengths and weaknesses is one things, but trying to beat this more mature and composed version of Sabalenka is an entirely different task.

Much has been made of Sabalenka cleaning up the polluted serving that plagued her at times last year as she hit 39 double faults in her opening 2022 losses. Even with a tricky sun overhead today, Sabalenka served with control. She won 25 of 32 first-serve points, matched Bencic with four aces and hit just four double faults.

"I mean, definitely today I felt like I couldn't handle her power," Bencic said. "I think that was the biggest difference. But still, you know, I don't feel like this is a really bad loss. Like, she's for sure very in form right now and also playing very good.

"So I'm not, like, discouraged, I'm not like super devastated after this loss. I feel like I had a great start of the year. Yeah, I feel like I just want to go back and work harder and come back."

Working with a biomechanic coach helped Sabalenka realized her service struggles were not mental, they were technical. 

"I worked so hard. Even when my serve was—how did you say—'disaster'? I worked a lot on my serve. I was keep trying, keep believing, keep changing. Then I worked on my, like, biomechanic.

"Basically that's it. But I was doing everything. I thought it's mentally, but it wasn't. We changed a lot of things on how we work on my serve. We tried to work more, less. We tried to, I don't know, so many different things. In the end of the season when I start working with the biomechanic guy, he helped me a lot. I think from there, everything starts to kind of getting on that level."



The 2021 AO doubles champion forgoes the visor or baseball cap. Squinting into the high afternoon sun, Sabalenka spit up her third double fault of the game to face a break point.

Flowing forward, Bencic swatted a forehand swing volley drawing first break blood for 2-1. 

In her younger years, Bencic was coached by Melanie Molitor, Martina Hingis' mother and coach.  Like Hall of Famer Hingis, Bencic is highly skilled stepping into the court to take the drive volley. Bencic banged a two-handed swing volley that helped her back up the break at love for 3-1.

A couple of adjustments Sabalenka made as the set progressed: she started playing a bit closer to the baseline and did a much better job locating her service toss on the sunny side of Rod Laver Arena. Sliding an ace down the T, Sabalenka held in the seventh game.

Hammering a deep return to handcuff the Swiss, Sabalenka rattled the error out to break back and even after eight games.

The high sun did not halt Sabalenka's flow as she slashed an ace out wide to cap her first love hold for 6-5.

By then, Sabalenka was measuring her massive forehand with more control. When Bencic sailed her fourth double fault, Sabalenka snatched a one-set lead after 52 minutes.

The fifth seed slammed a heavy forehand, her 20th winner of the day, holding for a 2-1 second-set lead.

Amping up the volume of her grunt and viciousness of her strikes, Sabalenka torched her two-hander for a break point in the fourth game. Though she was wearing a visor, Bencic showed her struggles with the sun slapping her sixth double fault into net as Sabalenka bullied another break on a double fault for 3-1. 

Struggling to land first serves, Bencic hit her eighth double fault to face deuce in the sixth game. The Adelaide 2 champion hung tough holding for 2-4 then pounding the Dunlop ball down on the court to punctuate a demanding hold.

Among the admirable aspects of Sabalenka's quarterfinal run was how well she held her nerve and serve when stress spiked.  Down love-30 in the seventh game, Sabalenka responded with four points in a row, roping a running forehand down the line for 5-2.

On her second match point, Sabalenka delivered a dose of closing command. Opening the court with a biting return, Sabalenka slammed a final forehand winner to land her first Australian Open quarterfinal.

The 24-year-old Sabalenka is undefeated in three prior Grand Slam quarterfinals.

 

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