Sabalenka and Badosa friendship a sign of shifting dynamics on WTA tour

Estimated read time 4 min read

As Aryna Sabalenka and Paula Badosa stood by the player entrance to Court Philippe-Chatrier in anticipation of their French Open third-round match, they waited in perfect silence. There were no jokes exchanged and no small talk. This was business. The pair entered the court and put on a show, battling hard until the end.

Away from their numerous on-court battles, which have included three matches in the last three months, Sabalenka and Badosa refer to each other as best friends. It was not until the Tie Break Tens exhibition event before Indian Wells in 2022, while both players were ranked inside the top 10, that they connected. While they are hardly the first friends to compete on the court, their relationship seems reflective of the shifting dynamics in the WTA locker room.

The cutthroat nature of women’s tennis has historically been a popular aspect of the sport. The fierce competitiveness of such ambitious athletes has often affected their relations, or lack thereof, off the court. The tension between players such as the Williams sisters and Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, and Maria Sharapova against everyone, set the tone. Scenes such as Sharapova suggesting that Ivanovic should “check her blood pressure” after performing well following a medical timeout in their 2014 match have become part of the lore of women’s tennis.

During a recent interview, Serena Williams was asked if she still has “beef” with Sharapova. But the pair now greet each other warmly when they bump into one another at social events. “Not any more,” she said. “I mean, was there ever beef? I guess. It was just competitive. She was winning. I was winning, we both wanted to win, and I don’t think it was personal. It was just: ‘Do you want to win?’”

Times have changed. This current generation of top players seem to separate their on-court tensions while remaining friendlier away from it. Players practise together more often and speak together more freely when they see each other at tournaments. Having entered the tour in the wake of players such as Williams and Sharapova, Sabalenka says she started out feeling as if she should be distant with her peers.

“I would say at the beginning I was so closed, and I thought that this is the way everything is,” Sabalenka says. “Like, every­one is kind of off and you cannot be friends with anybody. But then with time, with experience, you kind of figure out stuff. You get along well with each other.”

Aryna Sabalenka (left) and Paula Badosa pose at the net before their third-round match on Court Philippe-Chatrier.View image in fullscreen

As Coco Gauff’s junior opponents have followed in her footsteps towards the top of the game, she has come to recognise how long she will be facing the same players in her career, and therefore the importance of being friendly. Gauff also noted recently seeing an old picture of a teenage Andrey Rublev, Jelena Ostapenko and Daniil Medvedev together at Times Square while they were juniors around a decade ago. They are all still going strong.

“It kind of put in perspective these people I’m about to be around for the rest of my life, playing each other,” Gauff said. “I really just enjoy being on tour because I know everything can be so tense and competitive. At the end of the day we’re going to play each other 10, 15 times. I think at this point you don’t have to be the best of friends, but everybody should be friendly; that’s the difference also between the WTA before I came and the WTA now. Everybody is just friendlier in general.”

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The type of characters on the tour help. In comparison to some of the extroverts that ruled the game, there are quieter personalities such as Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina and Naomi Osaka. More sociable players like Ons Jabeur and Daria Kasatkina, whose vlog has even chronicled her becoming friendly with former foes such as Ostapenko, have also helped to lighten the mood in player areas at tournaments.

Sabalenka says: “I would say that right now, top-10 players, we are all good with each other, and there is no big fights in between outside of court. Of course, on court we are opponents, but off court we are absolutely … we can talk, we can have fun. Not like we are best friends, but it’s not like ­something intense.”

It was not until Badosa’s final backhand sailed long and the match was over that she and Sabalenka resumed regular relations. As they met at the net, they shared a long, warm hug before departing the court as friends.


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