Flanked by youngsters Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Victoria Azarenka led the largest-ever Belarusian contingent into the third round of a Grand Slam tournament at this year's US Open.
David Kane
August 30, 2018

NEW YORK, NY, USA - Aryna Sabalenka's hard-fought win over 2010 US Open finalist Vera Zvonareva meant that, for the first time in the Open Era, three Belarusian women would feature in the third round of Grand Slam.

"I just thought, 'Hit the ball as hard as you can into the court, and don't think about anything else,'" she said of the 6-3, 7-6(7) win on Court 13. "Everything was going in at the end, so I was happy about that!"

Read more: Maturing Sasnovich on sacrifice, taking on control of career 

Sabalenka joined fellow fast-rising countrywoman Aliaksandra Sasnovich into the Round of 32 on Thursday afternoon. Nearly missing out on a seeded position, the 24-year-old scored her first tour-level win over BNP Paribas Open finalist Daria Kasatkina, 6-2, 7-6(3), overcoming a heat-impacted left knee injury on Grandstand to book a clash with Kasatkina's Indian Wells conqueror, Naomi Osaka.

"I remember the conditions, we played inside and it was very humid," the quirky philosophin said of her last match with the Japanese star at the 2016 Toray Pan Pacific Open. "I lost the first set 6-3, and was 5-0 up in the second set but I lost it anyway. It was such a long time ago.

"We're both different, and tomorrow is a new day. I've been saying the ball is round, and anyone can beat anyone. One of us will have to find something inside to win."

"When we played the quarterfinals and semifinals in Minsk, a lot of people were coming to see our matches. They finally saw tennis in life, and it’s like a popularization...I want my country to improve even more in tennis, because I think we can have even more from Belarus."
Aliaksandra Sasnovich

Former World No.1 and longtime standard bearer Victoria Azarenka was the first of the trio to make it through, easing past Daria Gavrilova on one of the hottest days of the tournament.

"I was prepared to stay there as long as I needed to be," she said on Wednesday. "But it was good to see the consistent level. There was no up-and-downs today. That's what I'm more happy about."

Azarenka twice made a Grand Slam third round alongside new mom Olga Govortsova; the pair made it all the way into the second week of Wimbledon back in 2015.

Read more: Starstruck Sabalenka adjusts to rising profile at US Open

Sasnovich believes her country's Fed Cup success will help further galvanize interest at home.

"When we played the quarterfinals and semifinals in Minsk, a lot of people were coming to see our matches. They didn’t even know tennis, or they’ve probably only it on TV.

"They finally saw tennis in life, and it’s like a popularization. Parents began taking their children to the courts. They're trying to play professional, and it’s really nice. I want my country to improve even more in tennis, because I think we can have even more from Belarus."

Aliaksandra Sasnovich, US Open

Azarenka, who takes on defending champion Sloane Stephens on Friday, is all too aware of a not-so-distant past without such opportunities, recalling her first trip to New York as a child to play junior tournaments and imitating her wide-eyed enthusiasm as she described the Manhattan skyline.

"It was crazy because I traveled by myself at 10 years old," she said after her first round win over Viktoria Kuzmova. "That was adventurous. It was something that I've never seen before. The pace of the city was so fast that even at 10 years old, you're like, 'Whoa.'

"I had a lot of fun coming here. I loved every fast food restaurant, unlimited soda. It was crazy for the first time. I grew up in a city, but obviously not as fast-paced as here. I think New York is very impressive for the first time when you see it, and when you're 10 years old definitely a lot more."

The youngest of the group, Sabalenka hasn't had as much time to explore the city, having rode in from maiden title run at the Connecticut Open. Quite the opposite: coach Dmitry Tursunov booked a practice session for the 20-year-old to follow her post-match press conference.

"I had some mistakes in the second set, on which I have to work," she explained. "I’ll just go for 30 minutes for a little work, and then we’re done for today. There’s always something to work on, and you can see it in the match. These mistakes can sometimes be really crazy."

The No.26 seed is set to play two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova in a rematch of their three-setter at the Miami Open, a big stage opportunity the Belarusian relishes.

"It’s unbelievable because it’s been such a great summer for me. I didn’t expect it to be that good. I’m so happy with this level I’m showing on the court. It was step by step, practice by practice..." she said before quickening her pace with a laugh, "point by point, game by game, set by set, match by match! 

"After I beat Wozniacki in Montréal, I started to understand that everything is working. If I can keep that, I can be on a high level."

Armed with high levels and even higher confidence, the Belarusian contingent appears poised to make even more history before Labor Day weekend is out.