MELBOURNE, Australia - Aryna Sabalenka ended a breakthrough 2018 season as one to watch, and lived up to the hype on Monday at the Australian Open, sailing past Anna Kalinskaya, 6-1, 6-4 to reach the second round.
"I'm so happy to pass the first round here," she said after the match. "I'm so excited to be on this level. It wasn't an easy match, because I remember her from when we were 18 years old and playing some ITFs. She's a great player, and it's not easy to play against her in a first round."
The No.11 seed won the biggest title of her career at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open last fall; with an outside chance of rocketing up to No.1 should she win the title, she maintained the form that saw her win the Shenzhen Open to start the 2019 season, needing just 66 minute to secure victory on Court 3.
"I've been really nervous because I made some changes in my career; I changed my fitness coach. I didn't believe that I could win the title in Shenzhen, but I started to feel different things in each match, with my movement and in my mind.
"It's important to start the season with a title, because you think, 'Wow, the pre-season was really good!'"
Kalinskaya made it through qualifying for a second straight major tournament - having made her Grand Slam main draw debut last summer at the US Open - but initially struggled beneath the Belarusian's weight of shot to start, losing five straight games after trading service holds to start the match.
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"I've had more media things to do, which is good, because I can improve my English!" she joked of her increasing profile. "That's good for me, but there hasn't been much more attention on me. It's more other players who are really good. People might like to watch them more than me."
Though the qualifier eventually settled, Sabalenka showed promising poise to grab the only service break of the second set and held on even as Kalinskaya forced the No.11 seed to serve for the match at 5-4, which she did without dropping a point.
"It was warm out there, but my pre-season was in Thailand, so I didn't feel the heat that much. I expected worse, but it hasn't been that bad."
Sabalenka ended the match with 25 winners to 21 unforced errors while Kalinskaya managed just 16 winners to 24 unforced errors. Most effective on serve, Sabalenka struck five aces and saved the single break point she faced in the match.
"I don't want to think about the title yet, because when you think about titles, you can get crazy because you're not respecting your opponents and you're already on the next match. That creates trouble for this match. I'd like to only think about my next opponent."
Up next for the 20 year old is Great Britain's Katie Boulter, who won the first match decided by a 10-point final set tie-break on Court 12, outlasting 2015 semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova.
"She's brilliant," Sabalanka said of the Brit. "She's such a good player, and it'll be another interesting match. I'm looking forward to this one because we've never met on court before."