WUHAN, China - When Aryna Sabalenka first made her mark during the 2017 season, with inspiring play during Fed Cup and a run to her first WTA final in Tianjin, it was her unadulterated power and on-court intensity that left an indelible mark.
Fast-forward 12 months, and the 20-year-old Belarusian has wowed with more than just her power. Since pairing with former ATP pro Dmitry Tursunov ahead of the grass season, Sabalenka has worked hard to evolve and broaden her game. Always an emotional player on court - Sabalenka regrettably admitted to breaking 'more racquets than any kid ever' when she was younger - she's learned to channel her energy more positively.
As a result, Sabalenka has compiled a 24-9 record since bringing Tursunov on board, making two Premier finals and winning one of them in New Haven for her first career title. Before she started working with Tursunov, Sabalenka was 0-3 vs Top 10 opposition. Since then, she is 7-2 vs. the Top 10, with her two losses coming to the World No.1 and World No.2.
Tursunov's impact has not been lost on his young charge.
"He's unbelievable," Sabalenka said. "I couldn't imagine how good he is. He does for me everything. He was Top 20 and he gives me a lot of experience from himself. The final in Eastbourne was from him. I was down 1-4 against Pliskova and I called him down to the court and he said to me a few words and I started to win. It was unbelievable."
WTA Insider sat down with Tursunov for an extended interview during the US Open to get his perspective on Sabalenka's meteoric rise. Read Part I of that interview here.
In Part II, Tursunov weighs in on his experience as a WTA coach and why, from what he's seen, Sabalenka could be a game-changer.
WTA Insider: Have any of her results this summer surprised you? Good or bad?
Tursunov: She did have a bit of a hiccup in San Jose (Sabalenka lost in the first round of qualifying to No.258 Maria Sanchez) which was a really painful sting for her because she worked a lot. She worked very hard getting ready from grass to hardcourts. I can't say that it was extremely surprising because she did a series of things during that match to allow that to happen.
But I feel like it's almost a good thing that happened because that showed her how easy it is to go from winner to loser. So that was, I think, a necessary battle lost.
But something surprising is really hard to say, because you could see the way she's playing. The way she's able to compete and fight and the way she likes it, she shines under pressure most of the time.
The way she's playing I feel like there's just not that many girls that can really fight with her. So a lot of the times when she goes out on the court it's really, in a sense, up to her. If you have her play a very good game, there's very few girls you can really take her out. The opponent has to play well and she has to make some critical mistakes in order for her to lose.
Even when she was playing with Simona [Halep in Cincinnati], it kind of interesting to watch from the sidelines because you could see how much depends on her. I don't like talking like that because a lot of people interpret it as cockiness. But I feel like she's really quite extraordinary. She's physically strong. She's tall, she's strong, she's fairly athletic if we don't count her coordination. And I think for an individual type of sport, the way she competes and the way she can kind of turn into this "beast mode" at a critical time, I feel like it's a very unique talent.
But she also wants it so much. She wants it a lot more than 90 percent of other girls. So there's maybe four or five girls that are willing to go through what she's going through.
She's also willing to work and she's willing to look at it from a different perspective because it doesn't need to be a heartbreak when you lose. I mean we never really treated falling down as a toddler as a heartbreak. We're just trying to learn how to walk. But somewhere along the lines we sort of convince ourselves that failure is equal to a loss.
A temporary failure could be interpreted as a heartbreak, and it shouldn't be. And I think that's what separates a lot of the people is how they treat these things. So I think the combination of these things allows her to be open and receptive and to improve so much.
WTA Insider: You're an ATP player now coaching on the WTA. What is your take on the differences between the men's game and the women's game?
Tursunov: It's almost impossible to be top hundred in the men's if you just know how to hit a forehand and backhand and serve and know all the basic shots. It's kind of like in chess where you sort of know how to move the pieces but you really don't know how to play the game. I feel in women's, a lot of times knowing how to move the chess pieces is enough to perform quite well and to be on top 30.
I know players that are just not able to roll a defensive topspin loopy shot towards the baseline. They just don't have that control over the ball and it has nothing to do with whether it's a female or a male. It's just she never had to learn that, she was able to get away without knowing that.
There's a lot of women who are not good at hitting overheads and they're leaving a lot of points out on the table simply because you just never address that issue because they feel that's not important. And so when someone comes along that is able to do these things, they slice through all these girls like a hot knife through butter.
Generally, we only truly change things and improve things when there's some sort of catastrophe happening. I feel like if all of a sudden in women's tennis you could not survive without knowing how to volley, then I'm sure more girls will start addressing that, because they'll understand if they don't address it they're just going to get left behind or they're just not going to be able to compete or stay relevant.
That's why I think Aryna seems so off-the-wall because she's able to do these things and she's willing to work on these things and she's interested in working on these things. I think at some point the girls will have to start improving and they'll start looking at her and they'll be like, Okay well she's doing this and she's doing that and maybe we should address that.
She could be that person that changes the game the way Serena changed the game, or the way Monica Seles changed the game, or the way Steffi Graf changed the game. She's bringing a lot more physicality, a lot more power, but also controlled power. There's a lot of girls who can hit hard but, generally, they tend to not move well or they're just kind of one dimensional.
WTA Insider: There's definitely more intelligence in how she's playing now.
Tursunov: To be honest, at the beginning of the year when she was a ballbasher, it's not because she was an idiot, it was because no one quite explained it to her.
WTA Insider: Do you feel like that's an issue in how young female players are coached on the lower levels when they're young? Is there a lack of respect there with respect to what coaches think young players can do?
Tursunov: When I worked with another player, my main concern was not to deliver information, but to figure out a way how to deliver it. Because there was a certain way the delivery would have been accepted, and if it was delivered in any other way it would have been treated as disrespectful or insulting.
So I spent most of my time not focusing on improving the player, but focusing on how not to hurt the feelings of the player. I feel it's not a very productive thing.
WTA Insider: It's a less efficient relationship.
Tursunov: If a boss comes to an employee and says listen I need this done, and the employee says no I don't like the way you're asking me to do this so I'm just going to take a vacation and when I come back in three days maybe I'll do it, but only if you ask me in a certain way. You're just creating a lot of turbulence and it becomes extremely ineffective.
Right now we don't have this problem.
WTA Insider: You can speak to her directly?
Tursunov:Yeah. I can speak directly. Of course, I also have to be aware of whether I'm hurting her feelings. We all have certain fears and certain things that we don't like to hear. If there is no reason to talk about it then I'm not going to bring it up. So I'm obviously still trying to stay aware of how it affects her, but she's giving me a lot more freedom of how to deliver the message across.
I want to work on the volleys, she'll work on the volleys. I have to make it interesting for her, but I feel like that also helps her. When she's having more fun and when she sees the improvement in small steps, and when I'm acknowledging the improvement, she calms down and she allows the work to continue.
But I think the main thing is that she wants to improve and she wants to get better, she wants to win, she wants to win these tournaments, and she wants to win an actual Grand Slam, not just one of the Slams. And she understands she's much better and she sees that it's quite close, comparatively speaking.
Five years ago she shouldn't have had any idea of how close or how far she is. But right now she's playing the best players and she sees how far she's off from them and what she needs to improve in order to get better and she's zeroing in on that. It's a lot easier to work with a person like that than with the person who doesn't want improve but you're sort of forced to improve them.
At the end of the day, I think the main thing is that she wants to improve and she's not she's not comfortable where she is, she wants to get better. If a player becomes comfortable and says, I'm very comfortable with my game I don't want to improve it, I just want to enjoy it and have fun, then as a coach you get really confused. It's very hard to find the right direction at that point.