Rising Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka will take on No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki in a rematch of the Nature Valley International final; the 20-year-old discusses pressure, expectation, and a growing rapport with coach Dmitry Tursunov.
David Kane
August 7, 2018

MONTRÉAL, Canada - With red Beats wrapped around her neck, a still-breathless Aryna Sabalenka sat down to revel in her 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 Coupe Rogers win over Ana Bogdan, one that earned her a second round rematch with No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki.

"It’s so sweaty here!" the Nature Valley International runner-up exclaimed when asked about the Québécois city. "It’s unbelievable. I can’t remember playing in a hotter place, but I really like the courts.

"It’s a perfect surface for me, and I enjoy staying here. The people are really good. They supported me and her on the court; it was a good feeling today. Everything feel small and contained, which is more comfortable for me."

It was the 20-year-old's first singles victory since a breakthrough run in Eastbourne, where she beat the likes of Julia Goerges, Elise Mertens, and Karolina Pliskova before falling to Wozniacki in two tight sets.

At the thought of snapping her three-match losing streak, obvious relief colored her face.

"Everyone is nervous on the court, and it’s the worst thing you can feel. You know you have to go for your shots, but at the same time, you’re thinking about how you might miss it. This is the back and forth in your head, and you’re fighting with yourself. When you start winning a few points with the aggressive game, you start to believe in yourself more, the fighting stops, and then you can go."

Though she admitted to struggling with expectations after a first round defeat at Wimbledon, the nadir came at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic for the otherwise exuberant youngster. 

"This win was really important because in San Jose, I lost to a player ranked outside the Top 250. I was starting to feel a lot of pressure from my side, and I wasn’t believing in myself as much. Now I’m back on the right track and I’m so happy."

Despite the tough loss to American Maria Sanchez - a three-time All-American at the University of Southern California - Sabalenka stuck around in San Jose, winning a match in doubles before heading to Montréal to face Bogdan, a Romanian qualifier fresh off a career-high ranking of No.58.

"After I lost the second set, I was trying to talk to myself, saying, ‘Try to keep your serve, keep going, and put the ball in. Even if nothing is going right on your side, just try to return to your game.’ That was my plan for the third set."

The steadier mindset comes from coach Dmitry Tursunov, who began working with Sabalenka ahead of the grass court season.

"I’ve been trying to find the right coach for me, the one who will understand my feelings, and my game, the one who will know what to do with me. My sponsor helped me find him, and now I’m so happy because he’s an amazing coach. He’s the best I ever had. He’s completely into the work and practice every day.

"He has a lot of intensity, and I like that, but he’s also such a funny guy; everyone knows that. That can make me more relaxed in practice, even when I’m feeling under pressure."

Formerly with 2017 BNP Paribas Open champion Elena Vesnina, Tursunov indeed aims to impart moderation on his aggressive pupil, a strategy that seemed to pay off on Tuesday. 

"He had a similar game to me when he played tennis. He tells me I have unbelievable speed on my shots, but sometimes it’s too much. If I put the ball in at maybe half-speed, that can be enough. That’s the biggest change in my game, and it has really helped me."

Sabalenka, who sometimes physically reaches out to grab her desired response, ultimately dropped just four points on serve in the final set. The two-hour thriller booked a rematch with the reigning Australian Open champion, an opportunity the Belarusian relishes.

"It was a really tough match. I’ll try to keep the same level I had that day, because I didn’t finish the first set. I was serving for it, and didn’t win. I’ll try to save up every point coming on my side."

Sabalenka and Wozniacki will close out Wednesday's night session on Court Central.