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In Women’s Tennis, Finesse Can Fight Power

Purer power players are also trying to broaden their range. In her late teens, Osaka clearly had potent groundstrokes and a penetrating serve. But she did not make the leap to Grand Slam champion until she lost weight in 2018 and improved her explosive movement, agility and defensive skills with help from her new coach, Sascha Bajin, and her fitness coach, Abdul Sillah.

“She’s pulled back some; Sascha’s got her thinking more on the court rather than just see ball, hit ball,” Austin said. “Now, she’s fit enough and aware enough and realizes, ‘O.K., this is a red-light ball. I have to get the point back to neutral.’ Or ‘this is a green-light ball, and I can go big.’”

The artists are also at work on finding the time to use their brushes.

“My challenge with Dasha,” said Dehaes, using Kasatkina’s nickname, “is to help her find a way to stay in the rally even under great pressure, and at a certain moment, the right moment, make the difference with a variation. But it’s not easy to vary when you play someone like Sabalenka, who hits every ball very hard from everywhere without much theory. It’s very hard to counter this kind of woman.”

Perhaps impossible when a true power player is on target.

“If you have Serena and she’s at the top of her game, I still say that power is always going to win,” Austin said. “I don’t know if Sabalenka is 10 to 15 percent away from that top level or maybe just two weeks away, but when she’s all cylinders firing, I still think she’s going to take out the Kasatkinas, the Sevastovas, the Bartys. But let me tell you. If you’re off a little bit and your timing is messed up a little bit by those combinations — topspin, slice, short, deep — it’s a whole new ballgame.”

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