PARIS, France - No.11 seed Aryna Sabalenka has notched up her first ever victory at Roland Garros, a battling 7-5, 6-1 defeat of Dominika Cibulkova in one hour and 32 minutes.
Playing here for the first time as a seed, the Belarusian almost reprised the scoreline of her only previous encounter with Cibulkova in last year's Wuhan quarterfinals, conceding two fewer games in the second set than last September's 7-5, 6-3 result. Slamming five aces and 31 winners, Sabalenka was forced to eke out a compelling first set before pulling away.
Cibulkova came into Paris with a 2019 win-loss record of just 2-8 in WTA main draws, but despite her lean results the former World No.5 can never be overlooked - and over the course of the first set, she would make life exceedingly difficult for the Belarusian. Coming up with some breathtaking passing shots, exposing Sabalenka's inferior touch on the run with the dropshot and moving the ball around the court with her usual panache, Cibulkova repeatedly carved out opportunities for herself.
Sabalenka also contributed to her own difficulties - particularly when it came to her all-or-nothing approach to her serve. The 21-year-old rarely held back on her second delivery, and consequently coughed up eight double faults - four of which came in the opening game.
But it was testament to how Sabalenka's tightrope-walk paid off today that she was still able to hold that game - and to fend off 11 out of 12 break points she faced over the first set. Almost all of these came via clean winners or unreturnable serves: Cibulkova's best chance came in the seventh game, when she squandered her third opportunity with a wide backhand.
When Sabalenka - who had broken for 5-3 with consecutive return winners that left the crowd gasping and Cibulkova flailing - was eventually broken in the following game, it was on a simple forehand putaway ballooned metres beyond both baseline and tramline. It was also swiftly shaken off. Three games later, the New Haven and Wuhan champion broke again for the set, sealing it by nailing a backhand winner down the line.
There would still be a dribble of double faults to come in the second set, but Sabalenka would clean up the rest of her game magnificently as she asserted her authority. A run to the Strasbourg semifinals last week - her first last-four showing since St. Petersburg in February - had leveled Sabalenka's clay record at 4-4 prior to Roland Garros, and her restored confidence showed as she teed off with her groundstrokes.
2008 semifinalist Cibulkova, finding it increasingly difficult to match Sabalenka's pace, lapsed into error to go down a break for 0-2, and would cling on to her serve just once more. Elevating her backhand to new levels of ferocity, Sabalenka sped towards the finishing line, finishing on her third match point with yet another winner from that wing.
But up next for the Shenzhen champion in her bid to make the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam for the first time will be a familiar face and some less-than-fond memories: 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova, her conqueror in the third round of the Australian Open.