DOHA, Qatar - Elena Rybakina simply does not have the energy to be surprised by her winning ways. After playing a grueling three-set final at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Saturday, the 20-year-old came through a quick turnaround to earn her tour-leading 20th win of the season in the first round of the Qatar Total Open, coming back to defeat Sorana Cirstea, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 in her Doha debut.
With the win, Rybakina became the first player to win 20 matches in the first two months of a season since Elena Dementieva in 2009.
"Of course I'm tired but to be honest I don't feel like I played so many matches," Rybakina told WTA Insider after the win. "I just wanted to win some titles. I'm playing so many finals, so after the loss in the Dubai final, I had even more motivation to play here.
"Now I feel a little bit tired but I think I have time to recover and we'll see how it goes this tournament."
Heading into her second-round match against Alison Van Uytvanck, Rybakina has posted a 20-4 record across the five tournaments she's played. Aside from the Australian Open, where she made her first third-round appearance at a Slam before losing to World No.1 Ashleigh Barty, Rybakina has made the final of all the tournaments she's played this year, with three of her four losses coming to Top 10 opponents: Barty (Australian Open), Kiki Bertens (St. Petersburg final), Simona Halep (Dubai final).
Rybakina credits her improved physicality and tactical awareness for her early-season surge, which has put her firmly in the Top 20 at a career-high No.17. Not bad for a player who was ranked No.193 12 months ago.
"I had for the first time a real pre-season for six weeks," Rybakina said. "It was really difficult for me, but I feel good. You can see how many matches I played. I didn't expect this."
Asked if her results have surprised her so far, Rybakina said initially, yes.
"I thought after the difficult pre-season it was going to be tough for me to start playing tournaments because six weeks is a lot for the first time," she said. "So I was surprised because of this. I felt really good physically.
"Now I'm not surprised. I'm just trying to fight every match and we will see."
Asked to identify the best match she's played over the last two months, her narrow loss to Halep in Dubai was still fresh on her mind. But it was her title run at the Hobart International that foreshadowed just how tough an out she would prove to be.
"I think in Hobart it was a difficult tournament for me because I played so many three-set matches and I was always down in so many matches," Rybakina said.
"I would say a lot of matches were really good and I learned something new. Like in St. Petersburg, I didn't follow the tactic at all in the final. I was so upset about this. In the next tournament, even if I didn't feel so good because of the conditions from Russia to Dubai, even if it wasn't going my way, it was good that I won against Kenin, Pliskova, and other good players because I was following the tactics."
Right alongside Rybakina for her rise has been her Croatian coach, Stefano Vukov. Since hiring Vukov as her first full-time traveling coach nearly a year ago, Rybakina has flown up the rankings. Their "Fire & Ice" dynamic has been the perfect recipe for success.
"He's helping me a lot and his energy is very good for me because I'm calm and he's more active," Rybakina said. "It works really good. He's helping a lot and he can come and tell me about the tactic, if I'm doing it correct or wrong, and also just some energy and advice on the details."
In addition to her winning ways, Rybakina has made a name for herself with her demonstrably undemonstrative demeanor on court. She rarely fistpumps or lets out any verbal exhortations, regardless of the result of the point, the game, the set, or the match. Her perfunctory match-point celebrations consist of nothing more than a casual walk to the net for the handshake.
When asked what is going through her mind on match points, Rybakina laughed.
"Yes, I'm very calm," she said with knowing grin. "I can be excited also, but it's always inside. Of course I'm keeping it in so much and one day it can explode. But it's not too often."
"I'm always actually calm, but now I'm even more calm because I'm tired and I don't want to waste my energy. For example in Hobart, I was mad and you could see it more than other tournaments. Now I'm just tired and I don't want to waste my energy.
"I'm just working every match because I know I just came from another tournament. It's different conditions every time and I don't have time to adapt. So I just try to work every match. I'm not even thinking I have to win it. Just work every point and that's it."
"I don't think about the ranking, or against who I have to play.
"I just play."