Aryna Sabalenka chalked up her roller coaster performance against Caroline Garcia on Thursday to “craziness” after the Belarusian climbed back from 5-7, 2-5 down to triumph in three sets and reach the Beijing quarter-finals.
Sabalenka, who extended her winning streak to eight consecutive matches, having captured the title in Wuhan last Saturday, admits her recent run of victories crept into her mind during her clash with Garcia and it wasn’t until her back was against the wall that she decided she had nothing to lose and managed to find her game.
Garcia, who played lights-out tennis for nearly two sets, served for the match in the second set but Sabalenka produced a surreal return game out of nowhere and immediately her body language changed as she mounted her comeback.
It proved too much for the eighth-ranked Garcia to handle and the defending champion eventually succumbed 5-7, 7-6(3), 6-0 in 2hr 19min.
In their sole previous meeting, Sabalenka saved a match point en route to a tight three-set win over Garcia in Cincinnati in August.
The 20-year-old now owns eight top-10 victories this season – only Kiki Bertens has recorded more having collected 10 wins against such opposition.
Sabalenka, ranked 11 in the Race to Singapore, needs to reach at least the semi-finals in Beijing to remain in contention for one of the last three remaining spots in the tour’s season finale.
“This week, it’s really important for me. It’s a lot of things in your mind when you’re playing, when you’re winning a lot. You start to think, It’s too good, probably time to lose something. When these things come in your mind, you start to, I don’t know, lose every point. You don’t understand why,” said Sabalenka, who has amassed a 22-4 win-loss record since she lost in San Jose qualifying in July.
“After, like, when you lose too much, then you come back, you didn’t think about anything, you just trying to play, trying to show your best.
“Well, it’s no words to explain what happened today, how happy I am with this win.”
Before the match, Sabalenka looked relaxed and confident during her warm-up session with her coach Dmitry Tursunov. The pair joked around, interacted with spectators, and playfully hit moonballs and tweeners just a couple of hours prior to the contest with Garcia.
One would never have guessed that Sabalenka would become a nervous wreck when she stepped on the court for their third round.
“I just want to say this is all about womans. Five minutes we’re happy, another five minutes we want to kill everyone,” Sabalenka said with a laugh.
“This is what happened today. We were really relaxed. We were just enjoying the moment. Everything is going well. It’s nothing, like, to get crazy. Well, everything was really good.
“I was in shock in the match. Everything was good before, I come on the court, I couldn’t put any ball in. Womans, we are crazy. That’s all I want to say. It is true.”
Tursunov doesn’t have a clear explanation of what was going through Sabalenka’s mind in the first two sets and joked that their fun warm-up session was “the calm before the storm”.
“Honestly, my analysis of this whole thing is that she was trying to win the match the easy way. And the problem with the easy way is that it’s always the hard way to win a match,” Tursunov told Sport360.
“She started off expecting a lot of things from her game, from herself, and then when it’s 5-2, you start understanding, ‘You know what? At this point, it doesn’t matter how I play, I just want to stay in the match, stay in the point’. She started doing the right things, she started working.”
Tursunov, a former top-20 player on the ATP tour, is trying to help his charge navigate all the things that are accompanying her rapid rise.
The young power-hitter has won her first two career titles within the past two months, has reached the fourth round of the US Open, and is up to 16 in the world rankings. This time last year she was ranked 101.
“To be honest, I’ve never been in her situation,” said Tursunov.
“Her ranking is changing every week. I think the bottom line is that she has a different goal inside, she wants to win Slams so when you put into perspective, these matches are small, they’re individual bricks for a wall.
“So you’ve just got to keep laying the bricks. I think if you stop and you admire each brick every time you lay it, it’s going to take you a very long time to build the wall.
“So the idea is you just keep laying the bricks, you put your nose to the ground, you keep doing your job, and then when you’re done, then you can kind of step back and kind of look and marvel and say, ‘Okay, how great of a job I’m doing?’
“So I think that helps her a little bit to keep her head down. She’s obviously having great results. Results that some of the girls have never had, I’ve never had these types of results.
“It’s amazing on one side of the coin, but also when you look at it from the perspective that she wants to win an actual Grand Slam, not just one tournament but all four of them. Then it’s all of a sudden, okay, it’s not that important, it’s a match to get her ranking up, but her destination is much further than where she is right now. I feel that sort of helps keep things in perspective.”
With a possible maiden qualification for the WTA Finals on the line for Sabalenka, it’s understandable if the pressure is starting to get to her.
Simona Halep, Angelique Kerer, Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki have all secured their places in the top-eight showpiece, and the battle for the last three spots might come down to the wire.
“She’s quite aware of Singapore. But she was quite aware of the possibility of playing Serena [Williams] in the final of the US Open, but she never ended up playing that, so I think that was a very good lesson for her that it’s not always wise to look that far ahead. Yes you understand that’s your end goal but you also have sub-goals you need to reach,” said Tursunov.
Sabalenka will face China’s Wang Qiang in the Beijing quarter-finals on Friday.
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