Anyone following the women’s tour this past summer surely must have come across the force of nature that is Aryna Sabalenka.
The 20-year-old from Belarus was ranked 61 in the world in April. Today she is No. 20 and rapidly rising.
On Tuesday, Sabalenka took out sixth-seeded Elina Svitolina to reach the third round of the Wuhan Open. It was her seventh top-10 win within the last four months.
During that time, Sabalenka reached the final in Eastbourne, the semi-finals in Cincinnati, won her maiden WTA title in New Haven, and made the fourth round at the US Open.
When she’s told she’s beaten seven top-10 opponents since June, the charismatic power-hitter pauses before a giant grin shows up on her face.
“Great summer, yeah,” she told Sport360 in Wuhan on Tuesday.
“It’s really important for me of course. It’s always important to beat top players, especially for yourself, you start to believe in yourself even more after each win. It’s always something special.”
For Sabalenka, it’s all about self belief and her opponents are becoming increasingly aware of how dangerous she can be when she’s feeling confident.
One of her recent top-10 victims, Petra Kvitova, was on the receiving end of a comprehensive Sabalenka beatdown in the US Open third round earlier this month. It’s hard to imagine someone as powerful as Kvitova to get blown off the court by an opponent but that’s precisely what Sabalenka did to her in New York.
“Yeah, it’s a bit incredible,” Kvitova said of the ‘Summer of Sabalenka’.
“I know that she played lot of three-setters, as well. She’s one of my colleagues,” joked Kvitova, who like Sabalenka, tends to find herself battling through deciding sets quite often on tour.
“But yeah, definitely I played her twice this year. I think she improved from Miami when we played, the match before. She’s not making that many unforced errors as she did before.
“I do remember the match from US Open, of course, unfortunately. But I think that she is a bit fearless. Even when she is down, she is just going for it, especially with the serve. It’s her weapon, for sure.
“I think mentally she’s stronger than she was before. Always probably the confidence is the important thing in the tennis. That’s what I think that she has. She just built on it. That’s probably why she’s playing well. She’s confident enough to face great players.”
The Belarusian youngster says the turning point for her was the grass-court event in Eastbourne last June. She defeated a 13th-ranked Julia Goerges, 15th-ranked Elise Mertens and a seventh-ranked Karolina Pliskova en route to the final, before falling to Caroline Wozniacki.
“I needed that to understand that I can beat top-20 players. And then I started to think, ‘Well, I can do this, I have to work more, I have to focus, and now I have to believe in this’. Because before you’re coming on the court against top players and it was like, ‘Okay, I’ll try my best and we will see’, and right now you’re coming on the court like, ‘I can do it and I will do my best’. It’s a big difference I think,” explained Sabalenka.
Her rise has coincided with her teaming up with former ATP player Dmitry Tursunov as a coach. They joined forced before the grass season and the partnership paid dividends right away.
The former world No. 20 has not officially retired from tennis, but he started coaching on the WTA tour, first working with Elena Vesnina before joining the Sabalenka camp.
Asked where she feels Tursunov has helped her game the most, she says: “Well I started to put more balls in. And I started to understand from which position I have to play and not go crazy on the court. Because before I was trying to hit the ball as hard as I can and try to put it on the line and now I understand that this is not the way to win matches.”
Indeed Sabalenka has worked hard on controlling her firepower. She has learnt to choose the right moments to unleash her winning shot and it’s becoming evident that on a good day, she can literally beat anyone.
Tursunov was known to be quite the character as a player. The Russian, who moved to the United States when he was 12, has a witty sense of humour. A quick visit to his bio page on the ATP website reveals this random nugget: “Hobbies include romantic walks on the beach, cuddling and annoying people.”
“The good thing is that he’s serious on the court but he’s funny off it,” said Sabalenka of her coach, whom she describes as the best she’s ever had.
“He’s a really nice guy, he knows when he has to be serious, and when he has to relax, and that’s an important thing in women’s tennis, because normally we’re always crazy and this is the kind of thing that can help us relax and have some fun.”
Sabalenka’s recent ascent has been fast and she admits it wasn’t easy keeping up with it at the start.
“In Montreal, I started from there, it was like, ‘I wasn’t expecting this’. I was just like, ‘Okay, well, it’s good’. And then in Cincinnati I was a little bit in shock. And then I started to understand why it’s happening, and I started to expect it,” she says.
“And probably sometimes in the matches this is a problem because I expect something from myself. But at the moment I’m just trying to focus on the game and trying to show my best for the people.”
She believes it all comes down to putting in the work, from both a tennis and mental perspective.
Sabalenka says she doesn’t set herself any ranking goals because they end being a distraction when she’s on the court. Still, making the second week at the US Open must have ticked an important box for her, despite her fourth-round loss to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.
“She’s so confident with her mind and she knows where she has to win the point or the game and she’s a really good fighter,” said Sabalenka of Osaka.
“She’ll fight no matter what and she’s an aggressive player. I’m not in shock that she made it. Because when I played against her, yes I had some chances against her, which is one thing that made me disappointed after the US Open but on the other hand she’s been at this level longer and she’s like, I would like to say that she’s a top-five player, like she is right now. And I expected this from her.”
Does she see herself achieving something similar herself soon?
“I think I’m close but only if I will be confident with my mind, that’s the main thing,” she says.
With her confidence growing by the day, a major Sabalenka breakthrough could be just around the corner.
Andy Murray is due to play in his penultimate tournament of 2018 at the Shenzhen Open on Tuesday.
The 31-year-old former world number one, now ranked 311 after a lengthy injury spell, is scheduled to face Zhizhen Zhang of China, the world number 340, on Tuesday.
Both players are wildcards for the tournament in southern China and the winner will play top seed David Goffin of Belgium.
There was a British player in action in southern China on Monday, Cameron Norrie progressing in straight sets ahead of wildcard Di Wu of China.
Murray on Saturday used Facebook to say the China Open in Beijing would be his final tournament of the year, with his first appearance in Shenzhen since 2014 the prelude to that. The Scot says he needs a lengthy break to try to find peak condition for 2019.
Murray who has won five and lost four matches in 2018, said on the ATP website: “I’m not quite back to where I’d like to be yet, but kind of improving each week.
.@David__Goffin will try to retain his 🏆 this week at the @ATPShenzhenOpen, where @andy_murray, @StefTsitsipas & others will try to stop him. @fabiofogna leads the way at the @ChengduOpen. What will your 👀 be on?@emirates #ATP Scouting Report ➡️ https://t.co/noKLWrcNDM pic.twitter.com/VLEOVWDJvG— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) 23 September 2018
“Hopefully, I can play some good tennis and get on a bit of a run.”
Norrie, the British number two and ranked 73rd in the world, won 6-2, 6-2 in one hour 10 minutes against Di.
The 23-year-old is next due to face Croatia’s world number 18 Borna Coric, who received a first-round bye.
Elsewhere, there was disappointment for Johanna Konta as the British number one was beaten in straight sets in the first round of the Wuhan Open.
Konta lost 7-5, 6-4 to Australia’s Ashley Barty, the 16th seed, in one hour 40 minutes.
Madison Keys believes the incident between Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open final needs to be “looked at more closely” to evaluate whether the issue of sexism in tennis officiating exists and accordingly address it.
Williams accused Ramos of sexism after he issued her three code violations that resulted in her receiving a game penalty en route to her straight-sets loss to Naomi Osaka in New York.
The American 23-time Grand Slam champion claims she wouldn’t have been treated that way by an official if she was a man, allegations that have gained the attention of millions across the globe.
The ITF released a statement supporting Ramos’ decisions during the final, which were all according to the Grand Slam rule book.
The incident cast a shadow on the US Open final and saw Osaka win her maiden Grand Slam in front of a booing New York crowd.
Last year’s US Open runner-up Keys, who lost to Osaka in this year’s semis, was asked at the Wuhan Open on Monday, if she ever felt like she was being treated unfairly by an umpire compared to the treatment the male players receive.
“I think that the whole situation, it was extremely unfortunate that a match was going the way that it was going, especially for Naomi, to be playing so well, be in the final, then all of that to happen,” said Keys after her first round win over Wang Yafan in Wuhan.
“The first words out of her mouth after she won her first Grand Slam were, ‘I’m sorry’. I felt so bad. It was just really sad watching it all unfold. Knowing Serena personally, I know that it felt like a very personal attack, as well.
“So I think everyone was just — it was unfortunate, it was emotional. I think we can maybe look at past things and see how other situations were handled, specifically in the US Open, which kind of raises some eyebrows.
“I think overall it was just a really unfortunate experience. I think we should probably look at it more closely and see if there is a bigger issue. If there is, it’s something that needs to be addressed.”
The 23-year-old American added: “I don’t know if it’s something that I’ve personally had to deal with. I feel like if I’m having a bad day, it’s not usually as much outwardly.
“So I don’t think I’ve dealt with even codes as much. I can’t really personally talk about it. I think it’s something that needs to be addressed because there have been instances where people have felt that way.”
Keys, currently ranked 18 in the world, next faces Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber in the Wuhan second round on Tuesday. It will be their third meeting of the season (they’ve split their matches against each other in 2018), and 10th overall, with Kerber leading their head-to-head 7-2.
“I feel like she’s the person that I’m going to play another 195 times before we both retire. I was unsurprised, I guess. But, I mean, it’s a tough match. It’s always a tough match,” said Keys of her familiar foe, Kerber.
“I feel like being able to have a win this summer against her is something that I can look at, look to see what I did really well. So that’s nice to fall back on instead of having to look at something like four years ago.”
— WTA (@WTA) September 24, 2018