Slowly, steadily, surely, Aryna Sabalenka has checked the boxes that have made her an elite tennis player:

First WTA title -- New Haven, 2018. Check. First year-end Top 10 ranking -- 2020. Check. First Grand Slam semifinal -- Wimbledon, 2021. Check. First final at the WTA Finals -- Fort Worth, 2022. Check. First Grand Slam title -- Australian Open, 2023. Check.

There is only one towering goal left on the big board, the No.1 ranking.

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Sabalenka, who will be featured in Part 2 of Netflix's Break Point, got to No.2 in late 2021 but couldn’t sustain it, falling as low as No.8 before regrouping and returning to her highest career ranking. Iga Swiatek has held the No.1 spot for 62 consecutive weeks, but as play at Roland Garros opens Sunday, that marvelous run is very much under threat.

If Swiatek, the defending champion, fails to reach the quarterfinals, Sabalenka becomes the new No.1. Beyond that, there are a number of possible permutations.

Quite frankly, Sabalenka -- who leads the Race to the WTA Finals and has a Hologic WTA Tour-best record of 29-5 -- doesn’t want to think about it.

Roland Garros preview

“I’m not focusing on that,” she said in her pre-tournament visit with the press. “Because every time I’m focusing on something like that, like points, ranking, results, and I’m not playing my best. So I’m trying to focus on myself, on my game, and make sure I bring my best tennis and then we will see after these couple of weeks what’s going to happen.”

Sounds like a plan, but when she steps on the court to face Marta Kostyuk, Sabalenka wouldn’t be human if No.1 wasn’t percolating in the back of her mind. Sabalenka won the only match they’ve played, 6-4, 6-1 last year in the Dubai Round of 32.

Her win against Swiatek in the Madrid final is evidence that Sabalenka gained a new level of confidence by winning earlier this year in Melbourne. How will that manifest itself at the season’s second Grand Slam event?

“Actually, after I won Australia, I thought it’s going to be easier, but it’s not easier,” Sabalenka said. “I mean, the same, I still have to bring my best tennis, and the thing that I have one Grand Slam in my pocket, it’s not going to help me to win this one.

“Everyone will come and try to beat me. So it’s not changing anything. It’s like probably mentally I believe in myself more than ever that I can do well on the Grand Slams -- and yeah, probably can get some more Grand Slams.”

After reaching the final in Stuttgart (losing to Swiatek) and winning Madrid, Sabalenka said it was probably fortuitous that she lost her first match in Rome. She was exhausted and used the past two weeks to recover. Coming to Paris will require a reset, because the French Open has always been her biggest challenge among the majors. While she’s won the Australian Open and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open (twice), Sabalenka has yet to get past the third round.

A year ago, Camila Giorgi took her out in three sets -- the last one 6-0.

“It’s an extra motivation for me to do better,” Sabalenka said. “Yeah, I think physically I’m stronger, so I’m able to move better on clay and I’m not rushing things, and I’m calm on court. So a lot of things I improved since last year, so that’s why it makes me better player on clay.

“I’m going to do everything I can to improve it.”

Programming note: The French Open starts on a Sunday, which means the 64 first-round matches are spread over three days. First-round matches from the bottom half of the draw will be played Sunday and Monday, while the top half plays Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday will feature all second-round matches from the bottom half, with the top half completing second-round play on Thursday.

Other notable Sunday matches

  • No.3 Jessica Pegula vs. Danielle Collins: Pegula leads series 4-0.
  • No.8 Maria Sakkari vs. Karolina Muchova: Muchova leads series 2-1, including a 7-6, 7-6 win at Roland Garros last year.
  • No.9 Daria Kasatkina vs. Jule Niemeier: Kasatkina leads series 1-0.
  • No.21 Magda Linette vs. Leylah Fernandez: Series tied 1-1; Fernandez won a three-set match at Roland Garros three years ago.
  • Alizé Cornet vs. Camila Giorgi: Giorgi leads series 5-2, but they have not played in three years.