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Korda injects new life into U.S. men’s tennis; Sabalenka unstoppable
The Belarusian followed “her feelings” and hammered her way to her third straight title, in Abu Dhabi, How far can she follow them in 2021?
January 14, 2021
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“We’re just waiting for that speed bump,” Tennis Channel’s Paul Annacone said as he watched Sebastian Korda begin the Delray Beach final on Wednesday afternoon. “But I don’t know if there’s going to be one.”
Annacone’s optimism was well-founded. The 20-year-old Korda was having the week of his young life. Over the previous seven days, he had beaten two of his fellow Americans, John Isner and Tommy Paul, in three sets. He had reached his first ATP final. A lanky, easygoing native Floridian, he had become a natural favorite among the Delray fans. And in the opening game of the final against Hubert Hurkacz, he broke serve at love. It all seemed to be smooth sailing for Korda.
And then, as if to prove Annacone correct, he hit a speed bump. It began when Korda double-faulted on the first point of his opening service game. It continued when he served at 3-2, was passed on a bad approach shot, and then was broken. And it got much worse a few games later, when he had to take a medical timeout for an upper leg problem. Instead of sailing to his first ATP title, Korda ended up losing in routine fashion, 6-3, 6-3.
At this point, you might be tempted to say: “Welcome to the big leagues, kid; nothing is going to be easy at this level.” But Korda is already well aware of what life is like as a professional athlete. His father is Petr Korda, who won the Australian Open in 1998; and his mother is Regina Rajchrtova, a former WTA player. His sisters, Jessica and Nelly, are professional golfers. Korda was born in Bradenton, the de facto capital of pro tennis.
On the one hand, Korda’s knowledge of tour life should help him adjust to the ups and downs he’ll find there. He knows, based on his bloodlines, that bigger things could and should await him. If your father is a Grand Slam champion, you can think of your defeats as part of the learning process, rather than an indication of your limitations.
“I always handle things pretty well,” Korda said after his loss to Hurkacz. “…For me [making the final] is only a big plus. I’m going to go back, I’m going work hard and just trust my tennis and keep doing the things that I’m doing.”
On the other hand, Korda is trying to do something unprecedented. In the Open era, no son of a major champion has gone on to win a major himself. Plenty of top players have been coaches’ sons, and Alexander Zverev’s father, Alexander Sr., was a touring pro. Maybe, if you’re the son of a Slam champ, the thought of trying to match what your dad did can seem dauntingly difficult, the road to the top exceedingly long. Better, like Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf’s son Jaden Gil, to try your hand at a team sport like baseball.
Can Korda face up to those kind of expectations? He made a solid and symbolic first step by winning the Australian Open boys’ title in 2018. And he has pro-level tools. He’s 6’5’’ and moves like someone three inches shorter. He has a point-winning serve and forehand. He has uncluttered ground strokes. Unlike most American players, he has a beautifully simple and forceful two-handed backhand. In many ways, Korda’s game resembles Zverev’s, but Korda seems to have a natural ability to recognize when to attack that Zverev lacks. As Annacone said on Wednesday, Korda “doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses.”
With his run, Korda moves to No. 103. Instead of making the trip to Australia, he’ll move on to play challenger events in France. It’s a long way to the top, but he doesn’t seem to have any illusions about that fact.
“Everything is a process,” Korda said, smiling, after his loss, “and for me, I’m still 20 years old, so this year is still all about learning and working hard.”
For U.S. fans, hopefully, it will be a year of watching, and learning more, about Sebi Korda.
Sabalenka‘s press conference following her victory:
“You have to feel for [Veronika] Kudermetova, don’t you?” one of the commentators calling the Abu Dhabi final said on Wednesday.
You did, really. It was only the start of the second set, but the young Russian had already endured a terrible pounding from her opponent, Aryna Sabalenka. Worse, there seemed to be no end in sight to the barrage. Serves, returns, forehands, backhands, smashes: Sabalenka was sending them all screaming past Kudermetova. Even when Sabalenka didn’t hit the ball for an outright winner, she made it too hot for her opponent to handle.
In a little more than an hour, Sabalenka had a 6-2, 6-2 win, and her third straight title. She has won her last 15 matches, and risen to No. 7 in the rankings. This was Sabalenka’s ninth career title, a sneaky high number for a woman who is still just 22 and has yet to come close to reaching her potential at the Slams. So far her partnership with her coach, Anton Dubrov, which started last year, has been a rousing, career-clarifying success.
“Every final is really something special,” Sabalenka said, “and I would say finals are a different competition. This final was really nice, and I would say a really fast game.”
Fast indeed. Sabalenka took control of rallies from the first shot, and ended them with brutally rapid efficiency. The key, it seemed, was not to try for risky winners, but to maximize her natural power advantage. In the first set, Sabalenka hit just five winners and made just two errors; but she forced Kudermetova into 13 misses. Sabalenka hammered her service returns up the middle, pushed Kudermetova onto her back foot, and went from there.
“In the first couple of games, I was trying to see what she was doing on her serve,” Sabalenka said. “Then, I don’t know, I just felt where she was serving, and I was just following my feelings, and it worked really well.”
“Following her feelings.” Now the question will be: Can she keep following them as she heads into a two-week quarantine in Melbourne?
Sabalenka is very tough for anyone to beat when she’s in this mode. The knock has always been that when she’s not feeling it, not in a good groove, not smashing winners at will, she doesn’t have a Plan B or a reliable way to win. And we’ve definitely had our high hopes dashed by her before. In 2019, she started the year with a title in Shenzhen before losing early at the Australian Open. In 2020, she was looking good to start the season, and then she lost in the first round in Melbourne. Despite her nine titles, Sabalenka still hasn’t reached the quarterfinals at a major.
In Wednesday, the Abu Dhabi commentators talked about how Sabalenka needs to add variety to her game to have more consistent success. Watching her, though, I wondered if the key is for her to be…more like she is. To have no hesitation about striking first and striking hard. It’s when she has doubts, when she’s not following her feelings, that trouble begins.
So to start 2021, let’s look on the bright side with Sabalenka. While she hasn’t come through at the Slams yet, she also hasn’t let that bother her or keep her from winning elsewhere. I liked the way she ended her match on Wednesday: She walked over to her coaches, and the three of them hugged, smiled, and traded quiet fist-pumps. There was a sense of satisfaction from all of them about a job well done, and a sense that there are going to be more, and bigger, celebrations to come.