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.
Jaziri, ranked 61 in the world, recovered from a second-set letdown to defeat the young German 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-4 in a late night tussle that lasted 2hr 33min in Beijing’s National Tennis Stadium.
The 34-year-old Tunisian, who only made it into the main draw in the Chinese capital as an alternate, saved a whopping 13/17 break points against Zverev and converted each of the three break point opportunities he created against the German’s serve.
The clash witnessed showmanship from both, highlighted by a tweener winner from Jaziri late in the second set.
A frustrated Zverev smashed his racquet into the ground upon the conclusion of the match, as he falls to 5-4 win-loss since lifting the title in Washington in the first week of August, where he had defeated Jaziri in his opening round.
Showtime from Jaziri! 🎉
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) October 4, 2018
Jaziri, who has wins over a fourth-ranked Grigor Dimitrov (Dubai) and a fourth-ranked Marin Cilic (Istanbul) this year, is enjoying a career-best season in which he has made his maiden ATP final in Istanbul and made the semis of the ATP 500 event in Dubai.
He admittedly struggled mentally during the summer but was given a welcome boost when he made a surprise run to the US Open semi-finals last month, alongside Moldovan Radu Albot.
Prior to this season, Jaziri was 0-5 against top-10 opposition. He is now 3-7 in such match-ups.
“More experience at this level has helped me,” Jaziri told Sport360 after his win over Zverev.
“Playing a top-10 player isn’t the same as facing a top-100 or top-50 player. I gained a lot of experience from my previous matches against top-10 players, even the ones I lost. I learnt a lot of things from those clashes. It’s not that I didn’t understand my game, but now I focus on myself more. I think about how I am playing, rather than focusing on the opponent.
“Today I’m very happy with how I was attacking the net. I won some very important points up at the net at crucial moments. I’ve been working on my serve, and I think I served well in the first and third sets. My serve helped me in the tough moments today.”
Standing between Jaziri and another ATP 500 semi is Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili, who defeated Fernando Verdasco in straight sets on Thursday. Victory for Jaziri on Friday would see the Tunisian return to the top-50 in the rankings after dropping to as low as 118 last February.
It has been a good week for Tunisians in Beijing as Jaziri’s compatriot Ons Jabeur qualified for the main draw then defeated world No. 1 Simona Halep in the first round when the Romanian retired injured after losing the opening set 6-1 to the 116th-ranked Jabeur.
Aryna Sabalenka will be looking to post her eighth top-10 victory of the season when she takes on world No. 8 Caroline Garcia in the China Open third round on Thursday.
Only Kiki Bertens has recorded more victories against top-10 opponents in 2018 (she has 10) and Sabalenka can get closer to the Dutchwoman’s tally with success over Beijing defending champion Garcia.
Sabalenka is also carrying a seven-match winning streak entering this clash, having won the title in Wuhan last week. The 20-year-old defeated Garcia in their sole previous meeting which came in Cincinnati in August. Sabalenka saved a match point en route to a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 triumph over the Frenchwoman there.
Ranked a career-high No. 16 in the world, Sabalenka is at 11 in the Race to Singapore and is still in contention for the top-eight season finale.
The Belarusian is bidding for a 43rd main draw win of the season – she’s one of nine players to reach 40 wins for the season (alongside Kvitova – 47, Halep – 46, Kerber – 45, Mertens – 43, Barty – 43, Bertens – 43, Karolina Pliskova – 43 and Goerges – 40). Prior to 2018, Sabalenka owned just 12 main draw victories in total.
Watch Sabalenka discuss her rapid rise in the interview above with Sport360.
Here’s a glimpse at her warm-up hit with her coach Dmitry Tursunov ahead of her match with Garcia on Thursday…