Aryna Sabalenka has resting tigress face, and she is apt to pounce on any tennis ball that hasn’t been fired at her at bullet pace. The 20-year-old plays to kill, announcing her intentions with loud, flat force. She was the only player to give Naomi Osaka a good fight at the U.S. Open, she already picked up a title this season, and here at the Australian Open, where she’s the No. 11 seed, she was not-so-dark-horse to win. I’d been pondering her potential matchups much farther down her bracket than the third round—which is where she bumped into Amanda Anisimova, an American 17-year-old presumably just happy to have gotten this far.
And then Anisimova, a teen, picked apart Sabalenka, a tournament favorite, in just an hour and five minutes. It was an exhaustive takedown, the kind of 6-3, 6-2 that leaves the outcome totally clear after the first 40 minutes, and leaves the loser feeling totally feckless and confused about what to try. When your opponent is landing shots like this, it’s hard to just buckle down and puzzle out a new strategy:
That’s as good of a defensive play as you’ll see all week, with slashing finesse on that squash shot. When it wasn’t Anisimova’s insane court coverage posing problems, it was everything else. This is just her first time clearing the first round of a major, and it’s odd to see someone so fresh to the tour with seemingly so little left to learn. Her delivery was untouchable: When the first serve went in, she went on to win the point 80 percent of the time. Even more compelling were the returns, which allowed her to apply ceaseless pressure that can be very taxing for someone accustomed to free points.
Sabalenka, typically the aggressor, was often forced immediately onto her back foot by these deep returns, clawing her way back into points where she should have the advantage. It’s very difficult to put that kind of pressure on someone with that big of a game. Under steady duress, Sabalenka, who typically takes every risk possible, began to unravel. She would overcook relatively simple putaways. She’d been broken, both on serve—four times over—and in will. By the end, with the result certain, Anisimova started feeling out the limits of her backhand, wrangling some truly unfair angles:
Almost six feet tall, rangy, able to scramble, with two seeded players left in her wake this week, and roots in the noble state of New Jersey, Anisimova is now the youngest player left in the draw. She’s also the youngest American to make the fourth-round of a major since Serena in 1998. Last year she made some noise with a fourth-round at Indian Wells, only to spend much of the rest of the season dealing with a fracture in her right foot. If this is closer to her actual level, the top 10 can’t lie too much further than a few seasons away. There’s nothing not to like in her style of play, and there seems to be no ball or foe out of reach.