Aryna Sabalenka
World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus powers a forehand against Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the third round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on February 22, 2023. Forehand winners were a feature of Sabalenka’s win against the defending champion. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

When Grand Slam winners clash, sparks fly. It was no different when Aryna Sabalenka faced off against Jelena Ostapenko. A slugfest ensued: forehands and backhands crunched with equal ferocity. No quarters asked, none given. To me, it was the best match of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Tournament so far.

There’s still a long way to go, and this was only a Round of 16 contest. More thrillers may be in store. I can’t wait to watch Sabalenka play Iga Swiatek, the world number who has been in sublime form.

Sabalenka has come to Dubai fresh from her maiden Grand Slam triumph in Melbourne. The Australian Open seems to be a turning point in her career. A remodelled serve has helped the Belarusian seize the advantage, and her sledgehammer forehand did the rest. In fact, at the Rod Laver Arena, one commentator said Sabalenka’s forehand is comparable to the average speed of a forehand in men’s tennis. That’s a serious weapon in her arsenal.

I got a good view of that killer forehand. The forehand across the court seemed faster than the ones down the line. What amazed me was the accuracy; to hit so close to the lines consistently at such speed is mindboggling. But then, this is professional tennis. Players play for a living, and only the best succeed.

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Talent alone is not enough to take them to the stratosphere of this sport. Hours of practice and gym work must have gone into building the muscles and honing the technique to land those returns in impossible areas.

Ostapenko, 25, is the defending champion in Dubai. The French Open winner in 2017, the Latvian is a powerhouse. Her strategy is simple: bang down the serves and follow it up with thundering groundstrokes. It’s a take-no-prisoners approach. The rallies barely lasted more than five shots, but it’s been effective.

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It worked against Sabalenka too. But only in the first set. After the World No. 2 woke up from the stupor and cleared the cobwebs from her head, the momentum shifted rapidly. The game changed on its axis. The hunter became hunted as Sabalenka turned up the heat.

Sabalenka, 24, clicked her game into a higher gear and showed how she won the Australian Open. The blistering groundstrokes that won her last 12 matches were in full view. She didn’t miss much. The shot of the day for me was an inside-out flick on the half-volley: the ball flashed across the net and licked the line. Effortless, that was. Ostapenko could only watch in despair. I watched in awe.