WUHAN, China - Aryna Sabalenka left China at the start of the season on many a Grand Slam shortlist after winning her third title in six months at the Shenzhen Open.
The 2018 WTA Newcomer of the Year returned to the country last week in the midst of a reset, having ostensibly come through on those January predictions - albeit in doubles - and feeling closer to the calm that helped her blitz the Donfeng Motor Wuhan Open field 52 weeks ago.
"After the US Open I went alone to the tournament, just to be alone, to think about some stuff," the defending champion said after a decisive win over countrywoman Aliaksandra Sasnovich. "Then I just had a little rest, and we came here. Our preparation was here."
The US Open saw Sabalenka capture her maiden major title and culminate a soaring partnership with Elise Mertens, with whom she won the Sunshine Double earlier this spring. It was also a time of upheaval, with she and longtime coach Dmitry Tursunov announcing a sudden split, only to reunite by the time she and Mertens lifted the trophy.
Sabalenka sees it all without regrets, and once again feels secure with the team that took her to her summer success.
"Something changed, in a good way. I can see that we're back to our great collaboration. We're back on that kind of feeling which was at the beginning of our work. I'm happy for that. It's also help me to play better, to go on the court every time."
The 21-year-old, who enjoyed her week in Zhengzhou visiting the Shaolin Temple and learning some rudimentary kung fu, can now refocus on her mid-season renaissance. After an opening round loss at Wimbledon, she finished runner-up at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic and showed steady improvements in singles while clinching her spot at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen in doubles.
"I definitely learned a lot of things this year. One of the important ones is that, the freer I play, the more fearless I am on the court, the more I go for it in tough situations without being afraid of anything, the better I play, my level goes up. I'm starting to play more consistently, just trying to forget about anything else, just being in the moment, putting my focus on each point, and going for shots without being afraid of missing.
"In the middle of the season I was kind of afraid of missing, afraid of making a stupid mistakes. It actually brought even more mistakes, and more pressure. With every match, the pressure was going up every time.
"Part of me was really enjoying to be in tough situations on the court. That's why it was tough to actually win."
Stuck in a cyclone of drama, things changed when the big-hitting Belarusian looked down at her beastly forearm tattoo, and remembered how much easier it is to be the hunter.
"Something clicked in my mind. I was, Well, what am I doing here? I'm the tiger. I don't need to be afraid of something, I just need to go for it."
Sabalenka next plays American Danielle Collins, who took her to three sets at last year's US Open, Monday night on Centre Court.