Aryna Sabalenka wins on return to court after death of her former partner | Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka demonstrated her supreme inner strength as she returned to the tennis court and played with total focus and drive during a devastating period in her life, defeating her close friend Paula Badosa 6-4, 6-3 to reach the third round of the Miami Open on Friday.

On Monday morning, Sabalenka’s former boyfriend, Konstantin Koltsov, died at the age of 42 in Miami with police describing his death as an “apparent suicide”. Sabalenka released a statement on Wednesday saying her “heart is broken” and asking for privacy for both herself and Koltsov’s family.

Instead of withdrawing from the Miami Open, Sabalenka, the second seed and Australian Open champion, opted to continue competing in the tournament, returning to the practice court on Tuesday. Miami organisers took the unusual decision of allowing Sabalenka more time to prepare herself for a return to the courts by pushing the match back to Friday despite the rest of the bottom half of the draw completing the second round on Thursday.

Sabalenka and Badosa are extremely close friends and after defeating Simona Halep in three sets on Tuesday on the Romanian’s return from her reduced doping ban, Badosa explained that she and Sabalenka had spoken at length after Koltsov’s death. Badosa said that it would be “uncomfortable” to face Sabalenka under these circumstances.

After rain pushed the start time back by six hours, Sabalenka and Badosa both stepped on to the grandstand court wearing all black, with a black cap pulled down over Sabalenka’s face. In the scrappy opening games, Sabalenka struggled with her second serve early on, double faulting on three of her first four second serves.

Aryna Sabalenka salutes the crowd but she declined a post-match interview. Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

But the 25-year-old gradually worked her way into the competitive, intense match. Badosa, who has struggled badly with a recurring back injury this year, played solid tennis in the opening set, serving well and injecting pace into her forehand when the opportunity presented itself, but Sabalenka progressively put a solid Badosa under pressure in her service games and increasingly took control of the baseline with her imperious groundstrokes. Sabalenka took the first break of the match for a 4-3 lead, and after four set points and significant resistance from the Spaniard, she finally saw out the set with some clutch serving.

With a tough first set secured, Sabalenka opened her shoulders and played with freedom throughout the second, serving extremely well and thoroughly overpowering Badosa off the ground. As the pair embraced in a tight hug at the net, Badosa elicited a smile from Sabalenka while congratulating her friend. After acknowledging the crowd, Sabalenka quickly gathered her items and opted to leave the court without conducting the traditional on-court interview.

Sabalenka will next face Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine, the 32nd seed, in her third round match. On Thursday, Kalinina saved a match point before recovering to defeat a tired Caroline Wozniacki in three sets.

Meanwhile, Tara Moore, formerly the British No 1 in doubles, has started a GoFundMe as she attempts to return to professional tennis after an independent panel found that Moore bore no fault nor negligence after testing positive for a banned substance in 2022.

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Moore, who reached a career-high ranking of No 77 in 2022, had been provisionally suspended in May 2022 during the French Open after testing positive for nandrolone. It would take 18 months for the case to make it to the first-instance independent tribunal in December 2023.

The tribunal eventually determined that Moore and Barbara Gatica of Chile, who were tried together, had both consumed contaminated meat in Colombia days before their samples were collected, ruling that they would face no period of ineligibility as they bore no fault nor negligence. Despite the ruling, Moore missed 19 months of her career under her provisional suspension, falling out of the top 100 and completely off the WTA rankings.

Unlike Halep, who has an unlimited number of wildcards due to her status as a grand slam champion and will likely receive them into all big events, Moore faces an extremely difficult task of returning to where she was before the ban. Moore explained that the GoFundMe would go towards her training, expenses and ongoing legal fees.

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