LINZ, Austria - Aryna Sabalenka was a full 10 games into her J&T Banka Ostrava Open quarterfinal against Sara Sorribes Tormo when she finally felt ready to play.
"I would say that match changed everything," she said after winning a ninth straight match and second straight title at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz.
"It gave me a lot of power because after I won it, I felt much more relaxed, and I believed I could come back from anything. It gave me more freedom, and every time I stepped on the court after, I felt like everything was under my control. Hopefully I can keep this feeling for my next tournaments."
Sabalenka won the final 12 games of that match against the Spaniard and hasn't looked back, overcoming the likes of US Open semifinalist Jennifer Brady, former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka, and longtime doubles partner Elise Mertens without losing a set to tie Simona Halep for most titles won and end an up-and-down year ranked inside the Top 10 for the first time.
Emboldened by the Houdini-esque escape from 6-0, 4-0 down, the Belarusian revamped her pre-match preparation with the aim of beginning each match ready to employ her high-octane game from the first point.
"I learned that I need to move a lot in my warm-ups in order to feel the court really well. It’s not just about warming up from the middle and doing a few cross courts; I need to get tired before I get on court. I find it’s helping me to work really hard from the beginning of my matches.
"I’ve had a lot of matches where I was out of in the first set, and then by the time I was able to come back, we’d be in a third set, and those can be 50/50," she recalled earlier in the week. "So, I’m trying to put pressure on my opponents from the beginning of every match. I’ve also been working on the variation of my shots, so I’m not just one kind of player and can use every shot I have in my pocket.”
Now in charge of that preparation is former hitting partner Anton Dubrov, a holdover from her original coaching team that long featured former ATP pro Dmitry Tursunov. Under Tursunov, she quickly enjoyed a breakthrough summer hardcourt swing at the 2018 Coupe Rogers and Western & Southern Open, pushed eventual US Open champion Naomi Osaka to three thrilling sets, and, in between brief splits in 2019, went on to win her biggest titles - two at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open and one at the Qatar Total Open in February.
"It’s important for me that I was able to have success without Dmitry, because we worked together for such a long time, and I started winning with him. It was tough to make the decision to split because in the beginning, I was questioning myself and whether it was the right thing. Anton has really helped me a lot to go through this process, and now I feel very confident working with him. This is definitely good for us to be successful, and so we’ll keep working and pushing hard to win more matches."
She spent the beginning of the tour resumption with coach Dieter Kindlmann, but parted ways before Roland Garros and promoted Dubrov to streamline her evolving process.
"I was working for a long time with Dmitry, and Anton was my hitting partner," she noted after her quarterfinal. "They knew me really well, and so I never had to worry about telling my team what I liked and didn’t like to do. Working with Dieter was difficult, mentally, for me, because it took him time to get to know me. He had thought about my game and how I have to work, which were different from my thoughts.
"I made the decision, then, to work with Anton as a coach, and I think we’re doing well. I want to keep working with just him because I feel much better when I’m with someone who knows me well, and I don’t have to overthink. It really affected my focus because I ended up expending energy on other things that there wasn’t enough left over for my matches."
Sabalenka will want all of that focus for the next slate of major tournaments in 2021. The highest ranked player yet to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal - though already a champion in women's doubles with Mertens - the former World No.9 hopes to minimize the external pressures that have often surrounded her on those fateful fortnights and make that long-awaited breakthrough on the game's biggest stage.
"At Grand Slams, I would think about how big they are, and put a lot of pressure on myself. I’ll try not to do that again, and know that everything I have to do is just go on court, bring my level, and give everything I have. That’s what I’ll focus on, on what I can control. Before, I would try to control everything, and overthink too much. Clearly, that wasn’t working."
Ostrava and Linz have afforded Sabalenka the opportunity to solidify major changes, most crucially in her approach to success, but isn't opposed to further adjustments as the next season unfolds.
"I decided that this is my job, and I just need to do everything I work on in practice. That helps me be more professional and more consistent on the court.
"Hopefully it’s going to work. If not, I’ll have to change again!"