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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Sunday June , 2023

Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka came through a rocky encounter with Sloane Stephens to keep her title hopes alive in Paris.

Photo Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty

The first eight days of Roland-Garros have been a bit bizarre for World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka. Peppered by a Ukrainian journalist on two occasions about her views on Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine (and Belarus’ involvement in the war), she didn’t feel safe in the press conference environment and sought help from the tournament and the WTA Tour with the matter.

Tennis Express

After her third-round win over Kamilla Rakhimova she was given an alternative form of press conference, meeting with a few hand-picked journalists who asked her about her tennis, rather than her politics.

It raised eyebrows in the press, but it likely lowered Sabalenka's blood pressure.

Tensions are and will remain tough between athletes (and other passionate parties) from Russia and Belarus and those of Ukraine for the foreseeable future, and Sabalenka hopes to find some peace of mind in Paris, so that she may focus on her quest for the No.1 ranking and a career-best performance at Roland-Garros.

And now, to the tennis...

So far, so good in that regard, as the 25-year-old found her way past 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens in Sunday evening’s night session, the first ever night session at Roland-Garros to be contested by women (another long story).

Stephens got by Sabalenka 7-6(5), 6-4, but hang on -- the scoreline doesn’t tell the story of the manic nature of this match. When a 5-0 lead went begging in the opening set, Sabalenka had to squirm, take a deep breath, then rally back from 6-5 down to take the first set in a tiebreak (in which she also trailed 4-2).

That she did so is a testament to her ability to hold the fort even when the pressure builds to an unmanageable level. It's a new trait that we've seen in Sabalenka in 2023, and it's why she's been the best player on tour across the breadth of the season.

How she found herself behind by a game after opening up a 5-0 lead in the opener is another story.

Aryna being Aryna? Sloane being Sloane? A combo, in reality...

The Belarusian squandered a break lead in the second set as well, but in the end she recovered it and managed to get out of a potential catastrophe with a straight-sets win.

A glance at the stats tells the manic nature of this contest. Sabalenka won 77 percent of her first serve points (30 of 39) and cracked 24 winners against five for Stephens. It was the 40 unforced errors (compared to 19 for the American) that really opened the door for the fleet-footed Florida native to make it a contest.

In the end, however complicated, Sabalenka has overcome another obstacle this week and she pushes her current Grand Slam winning streak to 11 matches as she runs her record to 33-5 on the season, and 13-2 on clay.

As for Stephens, she continues to prove she can be a contender in Paris. She reached the round of 16 for the ninth time in 12 career appearances and demonstrated her trademark chops on the clay. Smooth striking, smoother footwork and a very heady and level tactical approach.

This won’t be the last time we see her shining on the terre battue in Paris. As for Sabalenka, despite her rather patchy performance on Sunday, this could be just the beginning…


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