ZHUHAI, CHINA - Aryna Sabalenka began the Asian Swing alone and at a career crossroads, and ends it more confident than ever after capturing the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
She began 2019 ready to continue her rise up the rankings only for her results to stall soon after starting the year with a third career title at the Shenzhen Open.
Standing atop a rankings cliff at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, Sabalenka suddenly shifted into turbo. She defended the title and qualified for Zhuhai, where she went undefeated through group play - staving off doubles partner Elise Mertens in a crucial third set - and scored a third Top 10 win of the season over Kiki Bertens in the final.
Sitting down with wtatennis.com shortly after the straight-set win - and before she joins Mertens at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen - Sabalenka reflected on what she learned from a season that was at times revelatory, other times humbling, but one that reaffirmed the potential emenating from the 21-year-old.
WTATennis.com: You began the season with the trophy, and you end it with one as well. How does this victory in Zhuhai change how you may look back on this year?
Sabalenka: I’m really thankful for this season. It gave me a lot of experience and a lot of lessons. I’m just really happy to finish it with a title. It gives me more power for the pre-season, and I just believe right now that, no matter what, I have to keep going and fighting. There will always be ups and downs, but during the downs, it’s important to remember that I’ll eventually go back up again. It’s really unbelievable, and I’m really happy with this year; it doesn’t matter that there were a lot of bad moments. I’m still really happy.
WTATennis.com: You're playing at a level that looks very similar to the kind you displayed last summer and fall. How similar does it feel to you?
Sabalenka: I think it’s a big difference because last year, I didn’t understand what I was doing on the court. I was just like, ‘Keep going,’ and the points, matches, titles, they all kept coming. I didn’t really realize what I was doing on the court, but after this season, I understand what I should be doing. That is what is helping me win matches. I just understand my tennis, and what I have to do. Last year was without any understanding, and this year I know to keep going, and I believe that this will give me wins.
WTATennis.com: Going back to the week you spent alone at the Zhengzhou Open. You were without your team for the first time all year. How much did that help you turn your season around?
Sabalenka: It was really important. I realized that it’s only me on the court; I’m the only one during the matches and I’m the only one who can help myself win. I don’t have to look at my coaches every time I lose a point, looking for answers from them. It has really been a big help for me to understand that it’s all about doing the work, and staying focused on each point. What else is going around doesn’t matter.
WTATennis.com: Still, you called Dmitry down before the last game of today's match? What did he tell you?
Sabalenka: He was a little surprised I called him. He was like, ‘What?’ (laughs) ‘What do you want from me? Everything is going really well. You know her service game, so just try to stay in the point. Don’t rush.’ He was like, ‘That’s it, so keep going. You’re doing well.’ He left the court like, ‘What was that?’ (smiles) I just called him because I felt like I could break in the next game and, to be honest, I didn’t want to have the same thing that happened in Wuhan, where I was up 5-1 and something changed. He said, ‘If you feel something crazy coming to you, do deep breaths, and go for the next one. Don’t care about points you miss, or the points you win. Just keep going.’ That helped me.
WTATennis.com: You've been open about your partnership with Dmitry, and things seem to be working better now. Do you feel one of you have changed or both?
Sabalenka: Both of us made a big change. We both try to be positive. Of course, we still fight a little bit, but it’s much better than it was in the beginning of the season. Now, we’ll fight, but we’ll be like, ‘Ok, but you understand the point I was making?’ I’ll say, ‘Yes, and you understand my point as well?’ He’ll say, ‘Yes,’ and we keep going. It was a big change.
WTATennis.com: You've always appeared confident and secure within yourself, but now even more so. Has this season helped you feel more comfortable in your own skin?
Sabalenka: I understand what I’m doing and what I have to do on the court. It gives me even more confidence, and I’ll just try to keep and work even more, and just keep going. I won’t look back or forward, just keep going.
WTATennis.com: There were many highs to this year for you, like winning your first major title at the US Open with Elise, winning here. Is there a moment in particular that sticks out?
Sabalenka: Every title, every tournament was really important for me, especially the US Open title. It was doubles, but still, it gave me a lot of confidence in myself that I could win, actually! It gave me a lot, and I’m really happy that I played doubles this year. In the middle of the season, I told Dmitry, ‘I don’t want to play doubles anymore. I just want to focus on singles.’ He said, ‘No, you have to play. It gives you confidence, and you can work on this, or that.’ I was like, ‘Ok, whatever.’ Looking back, I’m really thankful to him, first that he found a doubles partner for me, and second that he made me play doubles. It really helped me.
WTATennis.com: How will you and Elise approach Shenzhen?
Sabalenka: I think she made it there a little bit earlier, so she’s prepared a little more. She’ll do everything! No, actually, we’ll go there and do everything we can. We both want to win it, and I think everyone wants to win it, for sure, but we’ll do our best, but for sure, we’re there for the title. Hopefully we can do it.
WTATennis.com: You may end the year at just about the same ranking as you started, but what is the biggest difference from last year to this year?
Sabalenka: I think I learned that it doesn’t what happens in a match. Even when I’m down, I still have chances to come back. I have to stay calm on the court, play tennis, and not focus on anything else. I just have to be there, show my fighting spirit, that I’m the tiger on the court. I’ll get my chances.
WTATennis.com: You mentioned your sweet tooth in the press conference; is there a treat or snack in particular you're looking forward to having in the off-season?
Sabalenka: I like pizza with salami, and burgers from McDonalds, and every kind of cookie. I like everything! But I think I won’t eat them, because I’ll do nothing for two weeks and I don’t want to get weight, like it happened last season. I will try to stay fit! But for sure, one day, I will eat everything. Just for one day, and then I’m done.