The Kremlin Cup is Russia’s showpiece tournament with a WTA500 rating. Aryna Sabalenka made her return to action for the first time since the US Open facing Aussie Ajla Tomlyanovic in the Round of 16. No doubt the match fitness of the Belarussian was going to be a focal point of scrutiny. She was stretched to the limit by Ajla in that first set. Let’s begin with Ajla’s opening service game at 1-0(0-15). The Aussie is comfortable grappling on the baseline as her smaller frame may not be made for the big serve. Her biggest asset is definitely the forehand so if Aryna was to win this one she had to play to Ajla’s backhand. On her serve, Sabalenka didn’t show any sign of nerves that punctuate some of her later round matches in tournaments. She was 61% on first serve for the match with 10 Aces. Check out what happened when she served to Ajla’s backhand abd 2-2 first point. Ajla struggled just to make the return and get to the middle of the court quickly. She did redeem herself with a rasping backhand at 15-0 though. Turning point of the match was in the breaker at 1-1. Ajla was on serve and didn’t hit the forehands deep enough top trouble Aryna who went on to seal it 7-2 emphatically.
Ajla won the second set but it was a close affair again. The Australian didn’t start the set well though losing it to love. Such was the shot confidence that she played a poor backhand volley at 0-40. The technique was wrong hitting the ball on top of the racquet which was facing up. She came back strong though as the set went along. She went back to basics, the big flat serve(she was 67% on first serve) with the big forehand for the one-two punch. Check out 2-2(40-30). Set point 5-4 with Saba down 15-40 on her serve was the decisive moment of the set. Ajla’s backhand improved as well as the match went on and came to the party here. The two handed backhand is a favorite of many players in the women’s tour(instead of the one hander) for the power the left hand generates as well as the control in terms of the spin that the one hander does afford you.
All indicators were pointing to a long third set. How wrong I was. Saba was in the zone. Some impressive groundstroke winners in the first game coming back from 0-30 down. My favorite is the forehand winner down the line clearing the upper most part of the net at 0-30.The final nail was struck at 3-1(40-15) to go a double break up. Ajla should have done better with that forehand at the net. It was at a nice height for Saba to volley plus the angle of her shot was too obtuse. Saba , seeded one, advanced to the quarters will face an easy looking match with Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova. But nothing in etched in stone in women’s tennis as we have seen this year and throw in the home support it could be a tricky day for Aryna.