Aryna Sabalenka

Does Not Having On-Court WTA Coaching At Grand Slams Hurt Players Who Rely Too Heavily On It?

by Rajagopalan Rohinee

Aryna Sabalenka was one of the favourites going into the 2019 Australian Open, before its start. And, so she remained right up to her third-round upset at the hands of Amanda Anisimova. The unseeded 17-year-old upsetting the 11th seed was shocking enough.

But, as one Twitter user pointed out, it also raised the question as to whether Sabalenka’s run-of-successes in 2018 were also courtesy of her receiving on-court coaching in the WTA Tour, a development that is yet – up to now – to be seen at the Majors, at least in the main draw. As the Australian Open unwound further, Sabalenka’s result was soon cast into the debris of the other results in the event as it was wont to. But the subject of on-court coaching once rekindled, despite having slipped into shadows amid the usual melee at the event, burned steadily without turning into a full-fledged conflagration.

In that, Sabalenka’s defeat – much like the controversy-ridden 2018 US Open women’s singles final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka – led to the bigger ramification of the Australian and US Open organisers mulling about enabling on-court coaching in the main draw alongside the qualifying draw. But should this have been the only takeaway in the first place?

Traditionally, in tennis matches, players are expected to dig their heels through the course of a match, finding out answers for themselves as to how to tackle their opponents. It is one reason why momentum swings happen so swiftly in the sport, with players using their presence of mind to analyse and exploit the vulnerabilities of the player on the other side of the net. Beyond using technical nuances, players are also expected to adapt their game to suit the playing conditions – especially when playing under a roof. Case in point: the Australian Open semi-final between Petra Kvitova and Danielle Collins.

Collins – despite having come this far at Melbourne Park after having upset a good few players along the way – found herself struggling when the roof over the Rod Laver Arena was closed on account of the heat. Her game came under pressure even as Kvitova thrived – in spite of scepticism abounding about her struggles with heat – leaving no margin for error for the American could take advantage of, as she had done in her previous matches. In doing so, she also put forth the most distinguishable salience of the Majors and of the top-tier players.

The majors, being the most elite tournaments in the sport’s hierarchy, need their contenders to up the level of their aptitude rather than them being spoon-fed tactics. If at all the players are to be aided on the court, then, it may as well be that the coaches themselves take to the courts and outplay the other, in newfangled battles of tactical will. Secondly, top-ranked players, choosing to avail the option of having their coaches come on-court during WTA tournaments, go at it alone in the Majors and, regardless of how they start out at first, manage to figure it out as they go along by adequately equipping themselves to battle all tilts and ebbs in a match, whenever they come about.

In a way, this also explains the high frequency of attrition in the WTA Tour in these last few years, where titlists win anew or are supplanted regularly even as it offers plausibility as to why only few names – one of whom is Serena Williams – win Majors ever so often, even as others – barring those affected by injuries – drop off the radar after cursorily going the distance a couple of times.

The focus of the sport’s administrators should, then, be to ensure that the number of players whose performances slacken off in the bigger tournaments is reduced, thereby making tennis more competitive. The only way to do so is by discarding the concept of on-court coaching entirely and not by seeking to introduce it with more vigorousness. One of the benefits of on-court coaching is often cited to be that the playing field opens up a little more than the usual. But the question to ponder here is this: is such an open playing field qualitatively better as well? For, if it is not, it is not really adding much to the game – except momentary assuaging of craving for those wanting the on-court drama between a coach and player to extend beyond the usual quota of events.

Belarussian Aryna Sabalenka Wins Third Career WTA Tour Title In Shenzen, China

World No.13 Aryna Sabalenka’s meteoric rise to the top of women’s tennis looks set to continue this season as the hard-hitting Belarusian overcame a slow start to defeat American Alison Riske 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-3 in two hours and 11 minutes to lift her third WTA Tour career title on the hard courts of the Shenzhen Longgang Sports Centre this afternoon.

The 28-year-old Riske, playing in her third Shenzhen Open final in four years, began the match impressively, hitting decisive and accurate winners that frustrated her 20-year-old opponent, and converted the second of two break points in the third game to take a one set lead.

The 5-foot-11 Sabalenka, playing in her sixth career final and third in China, grew with confidence as the match progressed and converted her first break point in the fourth game of the second set to take a 3-1 lead.

Riske fought hard to get back in the set, saving four break points in the sixth game and two set points in the eighth before breaking her 20-year-old opponent with four points on the trot in the ninth game and holding serve to tie the match at 5-5.

However, in the tiebreak, the American lost focus and gifted her opponent a number of unforced errors to set up a third set for the title.

The momentum was now well and truly with Sabalenka, as the Belarusian broke her opponent twice in the first three games to take a 3-0 lead.

Riske, who has now gone six finals without a win, got a break of her own in the fourth game and threatened to turn the tie around when she got another break opportunity in the eighth game, but it was simply not to be her day once again.

Sabalenka squandered two match points in the final game of the encounter, before finally breaking her opponent’s serve one last time with a powerful forehand drive to lift her second title in China, following last year’s win at Wuhan.

“It was a tough match today, especially coming back after first set down. I just couldn’t find a way to beat her and she played an unbelievable match, with shots down the lines. I am so happy that I found a way to beat her, especially in the final to win my third title. It’s really special, also my second title in China. I’m so happy with this result at the start of the year,” said the Belarusian, who has an early lead in the race to the WTA Finals that will also be held in Shenzhen in October.

“Now I am first but it is only 280 points! But I really want to go on to the WTA Finals. Last year I didn’t make it there and I was so pissed. This year, I am going to do everything to get there. After this good start, hopefully I can do well at the Australian Open,” added Sabalenka.

World No.62 Riske was despondent to have now gone three finals in Shenzhen without a win, but promised to be back once again in future.

“Aryna played really well and she proved last season how good she is. In the second set, she started serving a little bit better. I still tried to be aggressive but my shots just weren’t landing in like they were in the first set. So I think that kind of flipped things a little bit and she got on top of me a little bit sooner. Everyone here is just super special and that’s why I keep coming back. The people have made it such a good tournament and place to be. I’m sorry if I let anybody down and I hope they will cheer me on for the next tournaments to come. I will certainly come back again,” said the American, who heads to Melbourne next to prepare for the Australian Open.

In a doubles final match that featured three local Chinese stars, former world No.1 Peng Shuai proved that she was the doubles queen of Shenzhen as she picked up her second doubles title here in three years, this time with first time partner Yang Zhaoxuan.

The second seeded duo defeated the unseeded Chinese-Czech pairing of Duan Yingying and Renata Voracava 6-4, 6-3 in one hour and 14 minutes on Centre Court.

Peng and Yang got off to a shaky start as they relinquished their first service game of the match, but leveled matters in the fourth game and stole the first set with another break in the tenth game.

The second set was tightly contested early on, as the two teams exchanged two breaks each in the first six games, but the No.2 seeds kicked into high gear in the eighth game, winning eight points in a row to break their opponents and then held serve in the next game to lift the doubles trophy in Shenzhen.

The 2019 Shenzhen Open doubles title is the 22nd of 32-year-old’s Peng Shuai’s career and the fourth doubles title that 24-year-old Yang Zhaoxuan has picked up on the WTA Tour.

“We are very happy to be playing together and very happy with the results of this week. We have both helped each other out and we really enjoy playing together. We are now looking forward to play together in future. We will be playing in the Australian Open together,” said Peng after the win.

The Shenzhen Open is organized by the Chinese Tennis Association, Shenzhen Municipal Bureau of Culture, Sport and Tourism. IMG and CCTV-IMG Sports Management Company and is co-organized by the Bureau of Culture, Sport and Tourism of Longgang District, Kaisa Culture & Sports Group and Shenzhen Gemdale Sports Industry Co., Ltd.

The event is proud to have prestigious commercial sponsors that include the premier sponsors Kaisa Group and Gemdale Group, together with Crowne Plaza Shenzhen Longgang City Center, Iqiyi Sports, Erke, Life Fitness, Yonex Head and Master Kong Drinking Water.

The official tournament website www.ShenzhenOpenTennis.com has additional information about the tournament.