A blockbuster second round contest sees fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka face former world number one and recently crowned Western & Southern Open champion Victoria Azarenka in a battle of Fed Cup teammates at the US Open.
Azarenka has looked resurgent in the past week and, following her run to her first title in four years in New York, impressed once again as she dropped just three games to beat Barbara Haas in less than an hour on Tuesday. In contrast to her fellow Belorussian, Sabalenka did not come into the tournament in great form and had a much trickier opening round encounter on paper against Oceane Dodin, though there were several positive signs as she dispatched the Frenchwoman in straight sets.
The only time the two ever met on a singles court was at this very tournament last season in the opening round, with Sabalenka rallying from a set down to claim victory in a high quality contest. “We had a really great match last year. It was really high quality,” commented Azarenka ahead of this meeting. “It didn't go my way. I feel like this year it's a great opportunity to kind of see where my level is at versus her level."
The all-Belorussian contest will be the final match of the day at the Louis Armstrong Stadium, starting no earlier than 19:00 local time. Either wildcard Sachia Vickery or Iga Swiatek awaits the winner in the third round.
Having faced off on these very courts last year will mean that there will be little that Sabalenka or Azarenka do not know about each other. Both tend to be aggressive and look to dictate play, though it is arguably the former who is the slightly more powerful of the two.
Sabalenka will look to dictate play as frequently as possible from both wings and will also look to impose herself on serve. However, serving can be a real weakness in her game with a tendency to hit several double faults. This will be a key area for Azarenka to look to attack, especially considering how potent she has looked when returning over the past week.
Serving can also be a weak spot for Azarenka though she has had less trouble in this rich vein of form, though may need to think carefully about where to place second serves; Sabalenka is more than capable of ripping return winners and dominating early on when returning. Both are also good movers around the court and are able to chase balls quickly, so it will be intriguing to see who will be able to create more when on the defensive.
Both are also strong doubles players, with Sabalenka and Elise Mertens beating Azarenka and Ashleigh Barty in the final here last summer; they have also played alongside each other for Belarus in the Fed Cup. Either woman may look to use their double skills to try and add variety to rallies and shake points up, particularly if they find themselves on the backfoot.
This, much like when they met last summer, will be a fascinating generational battle between two of Belarus’ finest tennis players, though there is arguably a different feel about this match 12 months later.
Azarenka is now very much in the ascendancy after recapturing some of her best form whilst Sabalenka has not looked entirely convincing since the restart. It would be unwise to rule the fifth seed out, but it would seem it is Azarenka who has the edge.
Prediction: Victoria Azarenka in three sets