Under immense Arthur Ashe Stadium pressure and with a big opportunity for whoever was courageous enough to take it, Aryna Sabalenka’s destructive ball-striking was in full flow as she returned to the semi-final of the US Open for the second consecutive year, outplaying the former No 1 Karolina Pliskova 6-1, 7-6 (4) to reach her third career grand slam semi-final.
In a tournament with only one grand slam champion remaining at the quarter-final stage, Iga Swiatek, few contenders arrived as desperate to finally clinch their first grand slam title. Pliskova, the 22nd seed, reached her first grand slam final at the US Open in 2016, eventually rising to world No 1. While she has been a constant presence in the late stages of grand slam tournaments since, she is still searching for her first title.
As Ash Barty consolidated her dominance last year, for much of the season Sabalenka was right behind her, No 2 in the rankings, enjoying the best season of her career. After racking up WTA tour titles but falling badly at grand slams, she made back-to-back semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, but she has never gone further.
Now endeavouring to take the next step in her career, it was the fifth seed Sabalenka who came out sharp and determined to rise to the occasion. She served well, crushing the ball and imbuing her every stroke with energy and vitality. As she thrived, Pliskova struggled badly. Her feet were rooted to the spot, her service games peppered with double faults. Pliskova finished a nightmare first set with one winner and 15 unforced errors, her only winner an ace.
Pliskova was much improved throughout the second set. She started the set serving better, she stood up to Sabalenka in the tight moments on her serve. But in the biggest moments, Sabalenka was unplayable. She played an incredible tie-break, utterly demolishing the ball but also pairing her muscular, awesome power with delicate touches; dainty drop volleys, sweet lobs and one lovely drop shot in the tie-break.
Throughout this year, double faults have caked Sabalenka’s game but in seemingly every important moment, Sabalenka slammed down second serves over 100mph with ease. After striking 23 double faults in one match earlier this summer, on Ashe she struck three. She ended with one final moment of glory, a scene-stealing forehand return winner off a first serve to move on.
“I just tried to make her work for it and she played really well,” Sabalenka said on-court. “Somehow, I was able to handle this level and win this match.”
Sabalenka will face either world No 1 Swiatek or US No 1 Jessica Pegula, the third best player of the season so far, in the semi-final. “It’s going to be tough and I’m ready for it,” said Sabalenka. “I’m ready for another fight.”