After a "successful and unexpected" 2019 season, 20-year-old Kazakh Elena Rybakina is ready to make more moves in 2020.
Twelve months ago, Rybakina ready to compete at the ITF W25 event in Playford, Australia to start her season -- but a year later, she arrives at the season-opening Shenzhen Open this week ranked a career-best World No.36, and a world away from where she was a year ago in more ways than one.
By posting a 57-21 record, winning her first career title at the BRD Bucharest Open, and reaching the quarterfinals or better at seven tournaments overall, Rybakina shaved more than 150 places off of her ranking by the end of 2019, and is one to watch in 2020 as she's on the cusp of several more firsts.
"I think I improved my ranking due to different approach to the trainings," Rybakina told wtatennis.com from Shenzhen on Monday. "I’m focusing on tennis much more now, and I learned a lot of new things, but I'm still learning.
"My coach helps me a lot. We played already a lot of tournaments together, and we work on tactics. We improved my technique, and now we are working more on the details -- but not only on the court."
Rybakina credits her Croatian-born coach Stefano Vukov, and their partnership that began last February, with much of what she's improved over the past year.
"In my opinion, it's very important to have a coach full time with you -- especially for a young player who doesn’t have enough experience," she continued.
"Stefano helps me a lot, not only on the court, but off the court, too. I played a lot of tournaments, so we managed to improve some things during the whole year on tour. I’m trying now to play not only aggressive, but also coming forward to the net -- and if I do it correct, it brings results. His help is very important and the result proves it."
Hungry for more knowledge even after a career-best year, Rybakina and Vukov travelled to Rome in November to train with new coaches -- the latest in a line of professionals that the youngster's proved eager to learn from.
"During the year, I was working and still work with different fitness coaches. For example, when I am in our base in Bratislava, I’m working with one fitness coach, and when I am at home, I do some fitness also with another," she said.
"For half of this preseason, I was in Rome, and I met new coaches, physios and nutritionists who were helping us. All these coaches and physios are helping me a lot. I’m learning a lot of new things from them every time and generally, we are doing similar work, specifically for my body."
The Kazakh's penchant for knowledge dates back even to her youth: first brought a tennis school by her father at the age of 5, Rybakina also trained as a gymnast and figure skater as a child, before choosing tennis as the athletic complement to her studies.
"School was a priority for me," she said, and the 6-foot, right-hander turned towards tennis seriously after finishing her studies, "training more professionally at 17, 18."
Rybakina -- who calls Justine Henin and Roger Federer her tennis idols -- gave the WTA a taste of what she could do on a tennis court shortly after that, when she first arrived on the professional radar at the 2018 St. Petersburg Ladies' Trophy.
Ranked World No.450, and making her WTA main draw debut after receiving a wildcard in qualifying for the Premier-level event, the 18-year-old Rybakina beat former World No.9 and French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky for her first main-draw victory, before shocking then-World No.4 Caroline Garcia from match point down en route to the quarterfinals.
"I remember this tournament very well. It was the first big result for me," Rybakina recalled. "That year, I just started working individually with new tennis and fitness coaches, and it was a really big change for me because I trained all my life at the tennis school with other juniors.
"We had strong team and very good coaches around us, but of course, to be a top player in the WTA, you need a personal approach and coaches. So in St. Petersburg I got a wildcard in qualifying, for which I’m very grateful and every match there was really tough for me.
"Honestly, before those matches, I didn’t think if I can beat [top players] or not, because I already played very good matches in qualifying and in general, I had nothing to lose.
"I only thought about trying to show my best, and just fight. After two wins over top players, I realized that everything is possible and I can apparently play at that level."
After winning her first ITF Pro Circuit title later in 2018, Rybakina added three more in 2019 -- to go along with a semifinal showing out of qualifying on grass at the Libéma Open -- to put herself on the cusp of the world's Top 100 by the summer.
Arriving at the BRD Bucharest Open on the Romanian clay for just her seventh WTA main draw, Rybakina dropped just 28 games en route to winning in Bucharest -- which was the third-fewest games lost by any player who won a WTA title last year.
In addition, her ranking of World No.106 at the time made her the fourth-lowest ranked player to lift a tour-level singles trophy in 2019, and catapulted her into the Top 70.
"I played a lot of matches before Bucharest and I was in good shape this week," she said. "I tried to do my best there, as always, and I was really happy to win my first WTA title."
With a smile, she added: "...especially on clay, just to prove my coach that I can play well not only on fast surfaces like grass and hard, as he thought when we just started to work together!"
Needing just over six months to cut her start-of-season ranking in half, a late-season surge saw Rybakina not only break the Top 50, but put herself on the cusp of an Australian Open seeding as the new year begins.
After a first round loss to Wimbledon quarterfinalist Karolina Muchova at the US Open, where she nonetheless notched a milestone of qualifying for her first US Open main draw, Rybakina reached the quarterfinals or better in four of her final five tournaments of the season.
That included a run to the quarterfinals of the Premier 5-level event at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open as a wildcard, where she gave eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka a stern, three-set test, and a runner-up finish at the Jiangxi Open in Nanchang.
"I wanted to prove myself at the US Open, but not everything worked out there and I was upset a bit, so I gave my best for the Asian swing," she said.
"In Wuhan, just like in the St. Petersburg tournament, the organizers gave me this opportunity to show myself and I took the advantage of it by reaching the quarters.
"I’m happy to play the big events, because I always wanted this. I just know that there, I have to be focused every single point because one mistake with top players can cost me the match, even if I play well on this day."
Taking inspirations from her peers' successes over the past year, but with only four players younger than her ranked above her, Rybakina says she's ready to build on the work she's put in to date as her fledgling career continues to find its wings.
"Overall, 2019 was very successful and unexpected for me, as the goal was to finish the year in the Top 80, but now for 2020, my goal is to finish in the Top 20," she said.
"It’s difficult for me to talk about my strengths. I can say that my game is aggressive so this is bringing the results. I have to improve a lot of things, especially my serve, approaches to the net -- and the main thing for me is choosing the right decisions during matches.
"Definitely, I'm motivated by all of the other young players currently coming up on tour. It’s a new generation, and for the next years, they are all going to fight for the top."