NEW HAVEN, CT, USA - Up-and-coming Belarusian player Aryna Sabalenka capped off a massive summer in emphatic fashion, lifting her maiden WTA title at the Connecticut Open and rocketing up to the WTA’s Top 20 ranking.
Despite being unseeded, Sabalenka was one to watch coming into the tournament after a string of big wins over names like Caroline Wozniacki, Karolina Pliskova, Julia Goerges and more during the US Open Series.
But a nervy, emotional battle against Daria Gavrilova in the second-round of New Haven threatened to derail her progress. Sabalenka lost her cool throughout the match, which saw her drop the second set in a close tiebreaker after having match point before narrowly edging through in the third.
Stunned by her own “crazy” behavior, Sabalenka vowed to work even harder to manage her emotions on court for the rest of the tournament - and it paid off, with the 20-year-old staying centered to triumph at the Premier-level event.
Still on a high after defeating Carla Suarez Navarro in the final, Sabalenka sat down with wtatennis.com’s Stephanie Livaudais to discuss how her mental game made the difference this week in New Haven.
Q: Congratulations on your first title. What’s going through your mind right now?
AS: I am so happy with my first title, this is a great feeling. At first I was feeling like I was so happy, like ‘Yes, I did it! A first title, come on!’ And then the next second I understand that I’ll have to work even more next year, because I have to do it again next year. Like, ‘Okay, now I have to be even more calm.’
And time is passing because it’s already US Open next week. So now I’m having to be focused on US Open - it’s just so crazy, mentally.
Q: You’ve played in a couple of WTA finals previously. Did that experience help you today?
AS: Yes I think so, for sure. And actually this was a little bit of pressure that I put on myself, because I didn’t win the titles. This was my second Premier final, and the fourth one that I’ve been playing in. In Eastbourne I was in the final, and Lugano as well this year [with a Tianjin final last year]. So four finals, and not one title.
Today I was like, I have to do this. But then at the same time, I was like, ‘I don’t have to think about it so much.’ Just play like a normal game, think like it’s a normal match. Those finals helped me today mentally - I knew what I had to do today.
Q: Your opponent didn’t play nearly as much tennis as you did this week. How did you prepare for that challenge, knowing Carla was probably feeling more fresh?
AS: I was thinking about this, because she had two girls who both retired from the match [and a walkover], so I was like, okay, that was better for her.
But you know, I had a lot of three-set matches this year so for me it’s okay to be more tired than the opponent. I was just thinking to just put the ball in, and it’s enough.
Q: This week you talked a lot about your match against Daria Gavrilova. It seems like it was the turning point for you, mentally.
AS: This match against Gavrilova was for sure the toughest moment for me this week. My nerves were everywhere, up and down. Probably because of all my wins, so I was a little bit tired. Mentally and probably also physically that was my toughest match.
But this helped me a lot, because when you win the craziest match - like when your nerves are getting really bad, and then you still win it - for the next one you are more calm.
After this experience you kind of understand everything, and you really understand that you have to be calm and just stay in the game, don’t get out from there mentally and get so nervous.
Q: You were really surprised with yourself that match.
AS: Well I didn’t expect that I can be crazy like I was there. My mind was totally crazy, like I was really crazy with every mistake - with my team, with my coach, with everyone. And I was just surprised. And then I thought about this experience a lot and I think that’s why I was calm in the next match.
After the match, I also went to my team and said sorry to everyone. I was just like “Sorry sorry sorry, please I’m sorry guys, forgive me!” (Laughing)
The key for me is to understand that if you stay calm, you always have a chance to come back in the match, it doesn’t matter the score. These thoughts help you to find the way to stay calm on the court.
If you don’t count the match with Gavrilova, I was pretty calm on the court this week. I know what happened there. On another matches, I was really calm. This was the key for all matches.
Q: Did you feel any pressure this week due to the great summer you’ve had?
AS: No, actually not. About this I didn’t have pressure. I just had pressure from myself to play well in the final, but that was it. Nobody gave me this extra pressure. All my team was good, very understanding and I’m so happy for that.
Q: Next week at the US Open, you’ll make your main draw debut, and you’ll also be seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time.
AS: I can’t wait for it, now I’m really thinking about US Open. And also because it’s my first main draw there - I prefer to start from main draw instead of playing in qualifying. Qualifiers have to pass three rounds, then you come back to main draw and you don't have any power any more.
And I’m a seed, for first time. This is big confidence after winning this trophy here, I hope I can play there at the same level as here, or probably better.
I know I’m playing against Danielle Collins first round, and also that I play Tuesday and I’m so happy with that. It’s good to have a little bit of time for rest - that’s all I’ve really been thinking about, really.
Q: Do you think players now see you as ‘the one to beat’ or do you still feel like the underdog?
AS: I don’t know! (Laughing) But probably no, just because I think everyone wants to beat the player they are playing against. If someone is playing with me, for sure they want to beat me. And if I’m on the court I always want to win no matter the ranking of players or how many titles they have.
Quick hits with Aryna Sabalenka:
When did you start playing tennis? When I was six years old.
Did you have a tennis idol when you were younger? No, not at all. And in fact there was a funny situation: when I was young some friend of my dad told him, “Wow, this is the next Sharapova!” And I said like, “I’m not Sharapova - I’m Sabalenka!” (Laughing)
Do you have any pre-match rituals? You know, before when I was young, I had a lot of things. But now, I understood that this isn’t necessary. I don’t want to let some rituals control me, so I don’t have any.
How do you relax away from tennis? When I’m at home I go to the movies with my friends, eat some great food, and just stay with the family and enjoy being at home. All the time we’re on the road so I enjoy being with my family.
What’s your favorite food? Anything Italian… something from Italian restaurants. But sometimes I like to eat something spicy, like Indian food. It’s always changing, but usually Italian.
What’s your dream vacation? Probably to go to Maldives, or Hawaii.