Aryna Sabalenka faces big-serving, left-handed Kristyna Pliskova as the world no. 11 continues her quest to defend her Shenzhen Open title.
Sabalenka vs Pliskova is live from Shenzhen on Tuesday 7 January at 12.30pm local/4.30am GMT
Not to be confused with her twin sister Karolina, Kristyna Pliskova is nevertheless a dangerous opponent who could be a real test of Sabalenka’s credentials as defending champion in Shenzhen.
The 21-year-old Belarusian started 2019 on a real high by claiming the third WTA Tour title of her career in Shenzhen, defeating Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals and Alison Riske in the final, and would end 2020 on a real high as well, beating Kiki Bertens and Ashleigh Barty on her way to successfully defending her Wuhan Open title before going on to beat four top-26 players on her way to claiming the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai as well.
In between those two achievements, however, was a difficult season for Sabalenka, who only won back-to-back matches at one of the year’s four majors (the Australian Open, where she reached the third round before being flattened by Amanda Anisimova, who would go on to repeat the feat at Roland Garros) and lost her opening match at nine tournaments throughout 2019 including Madrid, Rome, Miami, Toronto and Beijing.
The Belarusian did, however, have a very strong season in doubles playing with Elise Mertens – the two qualified for the WTA Finals Shenzhen – and if her year contained some definite lows, like the near-split and then reunion with coach Dimitry Tursunov at the US Open, it also saw her break into the top 10 for the first time; and Sabalenka also ended her season on the brink of breaking back into the top 10, coming into Shenzhen ranked world no. 11.
Sabalenka does, of course, have champion points to defend in Shenzhen this week, but she made a bright start to her campaign when she defeated Margarita Gasparyan – a good player who has been stymied by injuries, and who had played her way through qualifying – 6-3, 6-0 in 72 minutes, saving three of the four break points she faced and largely dominating on serve while breaking Gasparyan five times.
‘I was trying to stay positive, every point to try my best,’ Sabalenka said afterwards. ‘The first [match of the season] is always a little bit freaky and you need to find your rhythm back.’
We’ve already seen some of the usual spate of ‘freaky’ results that this time of the season traditionally throws up with early defeats for Elina Svitolina and Samantha Stosur in Brisbane, and second seed Sabalenka should face more of a test against Kristyna Pliskova in Shenzhen on Tuesday as she plays for a place in the quarterfinals.
Pliskova, currently ranked world no. 67, has never reached the heights that twin sister Karolina has become accustomed to – her career-high ranking came in 2017 when she held the WTA Tashkent title and had also accumulated runner-up points from the Prague Open, pushing her as high as world no. 35. But Pliskova has spent much more time outside the top 50 than inside it, and even slid out of the top 100 a couple of times in 2019, each time managing a WTA Tour result that would pull her back in – a semifinal run in Lugano in April which included a three-set win over Svetlana Kuznetsova but saw her wiped off the court 0-6, 1-6 by Iga Swiatek in the semifinals; a run to the quarterfinals of the Premier-level Birmingham event in June as a qualifier which included a hard-fought victory over her twin in a match which wasn’t pleasant for anybody.
Pliskova also made the semifinals of Tianjin in September and ended the year with a 40-35 win-loss record. The left-hander opened her Shenzhen campaign with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Irina-Camelia Begu, a qualifier.
This will be the first meeting between Sabalenka and Pliskova, and the latter will be looking for her sixth victory over a top-20 player in 22 attempts, with the others coming against Belinda Bencic (via retirement), Jelena Ostapenko in Shenzhen in 2018, Petra Kvitova, Julia Goerges and twin Karolina. Pliskova’s big weapon is her serve, the height and long limbs she shares with Karolina augmented by a left-hander’s angles, and it is a formidable one; she also does tend to perform a bit above her usual level as a top player, but she’s slow-moving and inconsistent. Sabalenka has a very good serve of her own, and she’s a much better athlete, much more stable off both wings. Judging by how well she played against Gasparyan and how energized she looks, the world no. 11 should be able to reach the quarterfinals in Shenzhen for the third consecutive year.