Meet the ball-basher who might be Ash Barty’s greatest threat to ending the country’s Australian Open title drought.
Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka is the world’s second-ranked player behind Barty and arguably the most devastating shot-maker on the women’s tour.
No longer burdened by her grand slam demons, Sabalenka – a semi-finalist at Wimbledon and the US Open – looks primed to eclipse her fourth-round showing from last year’s Australian Open.
But before that there could be a ninth career meeting against Barty at this week’s Adelaide International, after they split the previous eight.
All three clashes between them last year went the distance, including two finals, with Barty emerging victorious in two of them.
They practised together for the first time on Monday at Memorial Drive and would both have to make the final for another chapter to be added to their rivalry.
Sabalenka, 23, reached the semi-finals in her only other trip to Adelaide two years ago.
“It’s always great matches against Ash and I’m really enjoying our battles,” Sabalenka told News Corp.
“It’s always three sets because her game is really tough to beat in two sets, because she really can do whatever (she wants to) on court and her backhand slice is really tough to handle.
“She also serves really well, so she has everything and that‘s why it’s really tough. There is no weakness.”
The two stars aren’t particularly close but Sabalenka insists they are friendly with each other and there is a strong mutual respect.
They will also be on opposite sides of the draw in two weeks’ time, when the Australian Open begins.
Sabalenka, who split her off-season between Miami and her native Belarus, had never made it beyond the last 16 at a grand slam until her Wimbledon breakthrough.
She said she was now ready to go even further at Melbourne Park this month and had never felt closer to winning a grand slam title.
“That was unbelievable for me and I was really happy to reach the second week of a grand slam,” she said.
“It was a huge step forward for me, even though I lost the semi-finals (both in three sets), but I was really proud of myself and hopefully this year will be even better than just the semi-finals.
“I‘ve been there and now I think I kind of know what to do and I feel like I won’t be as nervous anymore (if I again make) the semi-finals.”