NEW YORK, NY, USA - Dmitry Tursunov can't communicate with longtime pupil Aryna Sabalenka during her matches at US Open, but according to the No.9 seed, he doesn't have to.
"We’ve worked together for such a long time that even just a look can help a lot," the Belarusian explained after a thrilling three-set win over former World No.1 and two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka. "I can understand what he’s thinking, and I usually know what he’s thinking during a match.
"I can sometimes just look at him and think, ‘I know, I know I did some...on the court," she giggled, having thrown in her signature blend of exciteable expletives.
Sabalenka began this season as she ended the last, winning her third career title at the Shenzhen Open following a fall triumph at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open. A surprising Australian Open defeat to American teenager Amanda Anisimova seemed to send the Belarusian into a tailspin, and she seemed to lose the clarity that allowed her exuberant aggression to take her into the Top 10.
"For me, the season only started from these hardcourts," she told me at the Western & Southern Open. "Before I was thinking more about the points and dropping off in the ranking. Now, my mentality changed after speaking a lot with Dmitry a lot. There’s a lot of people I spoke with, and that helped me make some changes in my mind."
She began working with Tursunov shortly before her rapid rise up the rankings last summer, and where the sudden shift in fortune might have made another player think of adding a new voice, Sabalenka vowed to stay the course and soon rediscovered success at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, where she reached her first final since January.
"Every practice, I put so much into them that I was crazy, but I trust Dmitry and what we’ve been doing," she said on Tuesday. "Before San Jose and the last couple months, I thought I trusted him, but to be honest, I didn’t, and this was a big problem. I’m happy that our relationship is getting better, and that’s why my tennis is getting better. He’s a great guy, and he knows how to help me play my best. The only thing is that I need to trust him. I feel like my tennis is getting better.
"I know," she apologizes. "It’s a long answer!"
The dark mindset that she says set in during the European swing had clearly lifted by the time she returned to North America, frequently flashing smiles as bright as the lights from the Kings Island Amusement Park.
"I gave a lot of interviews in Belarus, and I kept telling them that it’s not a problem with the coach," she recalled in Cincinnati. "It was a problem in my head. The reality I was seeing was different from 'real' reality.
"I’m so happy to have this team behind me because no matter what, they’re still with me even if I do…"
More giggles, more expletives.
"They understand that it’s just my emotions. I don’t want to change them because they’re good and they know what to do. The biggest change I needed to make was with my mentality and to see things differently. That’s what happened and hopefully I can stay with this strong head for the rest of my career.
"Of course, there’s still a lot of emotions going on with me on the court that I have to work on," she caveated with more laughter. "Still, a lot has improved, and I’m happy with that."
Those improvements were on display Tuesday night against Azarenka; playing her countrywoman - a two-time US Open finalist - Sabalenka rallied from a set and a break down to finish the match with a whopping 42 winners, nearly half of which came in the deciding set.
"After the whole season wasn’t going my way – there were a lot of ups and downs – I decided that, going into this summer, I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to prepare for each match like it was another challenge, and that’s it."
As she prepares for another challenge against good friend Yulia Putintseva, Sabalenka acknowledges the work to be done, but with her faith firmly in Tursunov, a full return doesn't sound far away.
"We’ve had a lot of conversations; I don’t know how many, and they’re still happening, these conversations. I’m actually happy to have him by my side because he’s professional and he knows me better than others. I don’t think I can trust anyone like I trust Dmitry and that’s important."