The lore of Aryna Sabalenka at grand slams continues to be written. The third seed and highest ranked player remaining in the draw arrived in Paris after the best clay court seasons of her life, including a title at the Madrid Open and a final in Stuttgart, but in the tournament that really, truly matters, she once again could not succeed. She was defeated 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round on Friday afternoon.
The defeat means that despite breaking into the top 15 three years ago, Sabalenka is still yet to reach the quarter-final of a grand slam and she has only reached the fourth round twice.
It is also one of few true upsets in this year’s women’s singles, in part because withdrawals and retirements to the world No 1 Ashleigh Barty, No 2 Naomi Osaka and No 3 Simona Halep, as well as last year’s semi-finalist Petra Kvitova. Serena Williams is now the only top 10 player in the bottom half of the draw, while fourth seed Sofia Kenin is now the top seed remaining overall.
Sabalenka was also scuppered by an excellent performance from a quality player who has remained at the top of the sport for so long. Pavlyuchenkova enjoyed a soaring junior career and she burst onto the WTA tour, reaching the top 20 aged 19.
Now 29, she has gained a considerable amount of nous and experience over the years, both of which were present throughout. She is a tidy and precise ball-striker, who times the ball beautifully and countered Sabalenka’s streaky waves of blinding winners and elementary unforced errors with focused, controlled aggression and a consistently high level.
She did not panic when Sabalenka stormed to a 3-0 lead in the opening set, responding by winning six of the next seven games to win the opening set. Likewise, the Belarusian exploded into the second set and rendered Pavlyuchenkova a spectator for large spells.
However the Russian was calm and present from the very first point of the third set despite some physical issues. She shrugged off the second set with a tremendous return performance in the third, anticipating Sabalenka’s serve far more efficiently and suffocating it with early, deep returns.
As she moved up an early break in the final set, Pavlyuchenkova also refused to rest on her lead and risk the possibility of Sabalenka rediscovering her rhythm. Under relentless pressure throughout the third set, Sabalenka’s game crumbled. Across sets one and three, she committed a total of 35 unforced errors. Pavlyuchenkova hit only nine.
Until recent weeks, Pavlyuchenkova had not been enjoying a great period in her career – she has struggled since tennis returned from the pandemic hiatus and she withdrew from numerous tournaments during the clay season due to an abdominal issue. But she has caught fire at the correct time, marching to the semi-final in Madrid, where she lost to Sabalenka, before continuing her momentum here.
In the fourth round, Pavlyuchenkova will face the No 15 seed Victoria Azarenka, who dismantled Madison Keys, seeded No 23, 6-2, 6-2 to reach this stage of Roland Garros for the first time since her career best semi-final finish in 2013. Azarenka is rightfully under the radar following a slew of physical issues after reaching last year’s US Open final. However, she is healthy, moving better on clay than for much of her career and could well play herself into title-contending form.