MADRID -- Last summer, Aryna Sabalenka was toiling away in Miami in the midst of a rigorous physical training block. Sabalenka was still ranked No.6 but having a horrendous season, beset by unshakable serving issues.
Unable to play Wimbledon, Sabalenka was faced with two choices: kick her feet up and reset or put in the hard yards to get herself back on track.
Sabalenka chose the latter. And she used World No.1 Iga Swiatek as her motivation.
Sabalenka had already taken three losses to Swiatek by that point in the season, in Doha, Stuttgart and Rome. Setting aside her own confidence issues, Sabalenka found herself physically overmatched against Swiatek.
"I remember all those sprints and running workouts," Sabalenka told WTA Insider after defeating Swiatek to win her third title of the season at the Mutua Madrid Open. "It was really tough for me, but I kept thinking 'If you want to beat Iga you have to keep running, you have to keep pushing yourself.'
"That's why I respect her a lot and that's why I'm saying that what she's done in tennis motivates me a lot. First of all, it's tough physically against her and secondly, mentally. Because you feel like you don't have these few games to drop your level. You always have to stay high with her."
Since that training block, Sabalenka is 2-2 against Swiatek, including her three-set win on Saturday. As she closes the point gap between herself and Swiatek, she leaves Madrid as the tour's leader in titles, with wins in Adelaide 1 and the Australian Open, while posting a 29-4 record. She is the only player to make the quarterfinals or better at every tournament she's played this year.
Sabalenka had never made more than four finals in a single season before this year. It's barely May and she's already made five.
"What we're doing this season is something incredible," Sabalenka said. "It's really motivating us a lot. It's inspiring each of my team members to work hard, think openly, to be open to new things to improve my game, my mental side of the game, everything. It's something really inspiring."
Here's more from Aryna Sabalenka's turn on the WTA Insider Podcast:
WTA Insider: You're only 25 years old and you've now won your 13th career title. If you think back to when you started your professional career, is this what you thought was possible?
Sabalenka: "No, if someone would say I would be a Grand Slam champion and I would be No.2 in the world and that I would be winning titles on clay, I would have thought, 'I don't know, it's a lot of work to do and I'm not sure that I'm capable of this.'
I wasn't actually thinking about that. I think that was the key. I was just working super hard, I kept improving my game, finding things that I could do better, analyze my game a lot. So it was a lot of hard work since my very first match at Fed Cup. Looking back I'm super proud of myself and my team and what we've done these last years."
WTA Insider: Speaking of your work ethic, have you always been a hard worker or is that a skill that you've learned?
Sabalenka: "I think I always was like that since I was a kid. I think it's because of my family. I saw how hard they were working to make my dream come true, to make sure that I was able to play tennis. I think that is something they brought to me and what they taught me through the years. But I always was that way.
I was always told that if you're not working hard there's no way you can be a top player. That's why I was crazy about fitness and tennis. I could stay all day on the tennis court or do fitness all day long. It definitely helped me to be mentally tough."
WTA Insider: Do you think you're one of the short-list favorites for Roland Garros?
Sabalenka: "It's not like I feel that way, but I really want to be one of those players. I'll keep working hard and keep trying to bring my best tennis in Rome and Roland Garros. We'll see after the clay-court season how good I am on clay or if I was just lucky these few weeks."
4 - Since her first win against the number 1 in the world in 2019, Aryna Sabalenka is the player with the most wins against the #1 (four, surpassing Belinda Bencic and Sofia Kenin - three each). Attempt.#MMOPEN | @MutuaMadridOpen @WTA @WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/ZoUsvufA6v— OptaAce (@OptaAce) May 6, 2023
WTA Insider: How do you plan to celebrate the title?
Sabalenka: "Unfortunately we're leaving tomorrow morning so I will celebrate my Madrid title in Rome. But I'm going to celebrate this one, and my birthday as well. I'll have one extra day for celebration."