Aryna Sabalenka has always had the physical tools to win Grand Slam matches. Now she seems to have summoned the mental strength to take the next step and win a major.

The 23-year-old from Belarus has never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. In 2018, she lost in the first round at Roland Garros and, one year later, she made the second. Last fall she got to the third round. After winning the title in Madrid – beating world No.1 Ashleigh Barty in the final – the No.3-seeded Sabalenka looks and sounds poised to go deeper.

“This is just another tournament,” Sabalenka said. “As always, I just have to show my level and be there 100 percent on and wins will come. This is what I mentally change. I think it was the biggest improvement, because before I was really thinking a lot about Grand Slam, that I really want to win it, and all these things, which is not really help you to win the Grand Slam.

“You just put a lot of pressure on yourself. So the biggest improvement was to stop thinking about the winning of Grand Slam. Just to start working. And that’s it.”

Her second-round opponent is another Belarusian, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, whom Sabalenka beat in Wuhan en route to the 2019 title.

“She’s older than me, but still, we were in the same place, practicing, training,” Sabalenka said. “She’s a great player, good girl. It’s always not easy matches against her, because her game, her style is a little bit like tricky. She likes to use all these drop shots, all these spin, slices, like all different variation of the shots.”

Vika’s unfamiliar foe

Clara Tauson, the 18-year-old from Denmark, lost in the first round of qualifying at the 2021 Australian Open. Then she won six of seven matches in ITF events in February, including the title in Altenkirchen, Germany.

In March, she won two qualifying matches – and then erased the rest of the field in Lyon for her first career WTA singles title. And then she suffered a knee injury in Charleston.

She’s excited to meet No.15 Victoria Azarenka in a second-round match.

“Last year I was a qualifier,” Tauson said after beating qualifier Ekaterine Gorgodze 6-4, 6-2. “I was just happy to be here. Of course I’m still happy to be here, but now I want to win some matches and play some good tennis and see how far it goes.”

The knee, she said, is sound.

“The recovery was pretty fast,” Tauson said. “Thankfully it wasn’t the knee specifically, it was some muscles around it.”

Azarenka was asked about Tauson after taking out Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.

“Not to be disrespectful to a player, but I don’t really know her,” Azarenka said. “She’s a young player, right?

Yes, the interview moderator confirmed.

“I have not really seen her play,” Azarenka continued, “so it’s going to be a bit of homework for me to do.

Badosa having a clay heyday

Paula Badosa has been tearing it up on the clay this season.

The 23-year-old Spaniard got to the semifinals of the Volvo Car Open (beating Barty in the quarters), the semifinals at Madrid (losing to Barty) and won the title at the Serbia Ladies Open. When Alison Riske pulled out of the French, Badosa was seeded for the first time in a major.

Photo by Jimmy48/WTA

She’s had success in Paris, winning the junior title here in 2015 and reaching the fourth round last fall – beating two Grand Slam champions (Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko) in the process.

“I think I improved on everything since last Roland Garros,” Badosa said. “I have worked very well in the preseason with my new team. I’m very happy with them. I'm feeling good on and off court, so I think that’s very important as well.”

She plays Danka Kovinic – the two have yet to meet – and with the withdrawal of Osaka, Badosa occupies an extremely favorable spot in the draw.

First-time meeting for Serena

Her forehand and her serve horribly off, Serena Williams found herself down two set points to Irina-Camelia Begu in the first-set tiebreaker.

With some aggressive play, the No. 7-seed rallied and eventually won 7-6 (6), 6-2.

Next up: Mihaela Buzarnescu, who defeated Arantxa Rus 7-5, 7-5. Serena has never played the 33-year-old from Romania.

Serena came in with only three matches played since the Australian Open, two of them losses. Still, she is famous for playing her way deep into Grand Slam draws and is a three-time French Open champion.

Advantage, Vesnina

The last time she was at Roland Garros, Elena Vesnina lost a first-round match to Bernarda Pera. That was three years ago.

Five months later she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, and eventually began the long climb back into professional tennis.

It hasn’t been easy; Vesnina is 34 years old and her WTA ranking runs to four digits. This, from a Russian woman who has won more than $12 million in prize money, reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2016 and won Indian Wells the year after.

She’s played doubles in five 2021 events, but her first singles matches, in Madrid and Rome, ended in defeat. On Sunday at the French Open, on her least favorite surface, Vesnina dominated Olga Govortsova 6-1, 6-0.

“Today was a beautiful day,” Vesnina said afterward. “I went on the court, and I was just enjoying myself on the court, and I was not expecting that it’s going to be that easy, of course. I think I never had wins like that in my life in the first rounds of Grand Slams. So everything happening first time.”

If that wasn’t seamless enough, her second-round opponent, Petra Kvitova, withdrew Tuesday when she suffered an ankle injury in a fall during media availability.

Which means Vesnina advances to the third round of Roland Garros for the first time since 2015 and only the second time in 14 career appearances. While the singles reps are important as she continues her comeback, the extra day off is an advantage.  

“I tried to see how my body will feel only with the doubles at the beginning, and then when I had a couple of matches in singles and doubles, my body started feeling better,” she said. “I was recovered better. But of course right now I'm not 17, 18 years old girl. I know that it's really hard for the body to recover when you have a tough match in singles and then you have to play doubles.”

Bogdan benefits from Osaka withdrawal

Ana Bogdan’s 2021 record was 8-8 coming into Paris, but she is into the third round of the French Open.

She advanced when No.2 Naomi Osaka withdrew from the tournament Monday.

The 28-year-old Romanian reached the quarterfinals in Istanbul (losing to Veronika Kudermetova) and lost first-round matches in Madrid and Parma. She beat lucky loser Elisabetta Cocciaretto 6-1, 6-3 to earn the berth opposite Osaka.

Osaka’s 15-match winning streak in Grand Slams will remain intact.