NEW YORK, NY, USA - Though Aryna Sabalenka had just won a decisive US Open doubles match with Sunshine Double partner Elise Mertens, the typically bubbly Belarusian cut a solemn figure at the press conference podium, ready to discuss the sudden news that she and coach Dmitry Tursunov had ended their 15-month partnership effective immediately.
"It wasn’t really a surprise to me," she admitted after she and Mertens defeated Karolina Muchova and Jil Teichmann in straight sets on Saturday. "I knew it was going to happen. I was trying to do everything to make sure it wasn’t going to happen. But, it happened, and we just need a little break."
In retrospect, it seems Sabalenka was indeed doing all she could to prevent the split, speaking emphatically of their renewed trust and focus on Tuesday night after she, as the No.9 seed, had outlasted countrywoman and former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka in three dramatic sets.
"I still think he’s a good guy, a good coach," she clarified. "We’ve had some long discussions for a little while, and made the decision that he needs to take care of some things, and I need to think of some things.
"I still trust him like nobody else, and he’s really like, my big friend. He’s a close guy to me, and so it was really tough to make this decision. Sometimes we just need to through some things to understand something else and start from the beginning and be more respectful to each other."
The 21-year-old, who plans to play the Asian Swing with hitting partner Anton Dubrov acting as her primary coach, achieved almost immediate success under Tursunov, who previously worked with 2017 BNP Paribas Open champion Elena Vesnina, last spring. She finished runner-up her first Premier-level final at the Nature Valley International in Eastbourne and rolling through the subsequent North American summer hardcourt swing, reaching the Western & Southern Open semifinal, winning her first title at the Connecticut Open, and pushing eventual champion Naomi Osaka to three sets at the US Open.
Her crowning achievement came at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, where she won her first Premier 5 title.
Sabalenka has since struggled to back up those dizzying highs in 2019, winning the Shenzhen Open in January but making just one final since, at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. Following that win over Azarenka, she fell in straight sets to unseeded Kazakh and good friend, Yulia Putintseva, announcing the split with Tursunov just over 24 hours later.
"I don’t want to say that I was losing because of him because he’s a smart guy, and he knows what he’s doing. Sometimes, even couples need to break up for a little while just to understand that they really need each other.
"I don’t really want to say goodbye to Dmitry because he’s even more than my best friend. He knows everything about me, and I trust him like nobody else. I don’t want to leave this person, and I want to keep him in my life, but I think this decision is going to help us have more success.
"It’s not going to break my game. I still remember how to play tennis, and I think I’m in good shape right now. It won’t hurt my game, but it’ll help me become stronger and more professional."
With two doubles wins in the bag since losing to Putintseva, Sabalenka hopes the relief of the decision will take away some of the pressure she felt during the spring and summer, help her regain her form in time for Asia, and leave the door open for a reunion in the future.
"I will be more, not relaxed, but I think I’ll trust my decisions more on the court, and be free from everything that’s happened around me. I feel like it’s going to help me, and Dmitry, too.
"I still remember everything that he would say to me, and I still know that he supports me. He’s still, somehow, with me, so I didn’t feel different. Sometimes, I missed being able to look at him on the court and having his support in that way, but something needs to be changed in my mind, and I need to be stronger, so it’s going to help me.
Seeded No.4 with Mertens, Sabalenka will be back on the doubles court Sunday afternoon, facing Viktorija Golubic and Sara Sorribes Tormo for her third straight major doubles quarterfinal.