BEIJING -- Only a few months ago, Marta Kostyuk found herself adrift in a practice session with Caroline Wozniacki. Her swings were there, but they weren’t connecting. This shortcoming went deeper than just her shots. Kostyuk thought she was trapped in another mental funk from which she couldn’t escape.
Kostyuk jokingly promised new coach Sandra Zaniewska she would mount a statue in the player's apartment if somehow she could emerge from the practice block successfully landing the ball in the court.
Kostyuk then got candid.
"Usually when I had this kind of behavior, all the other coaches, no one for one second would accept it or try to understand why I feel like this or try and have a conversation with me, or even just let me be," she told WTA Insider. "She did and I was like, 'Wow, this is next-level coaching. I've never seen this.'"
Kostyuk has been quick to credit Zaniewska for helping her navigate a physically and emotionally trying two months. Zaniewska, who coached Petra Martic during the Croatian's career-best years from 2017-2019, was brought on after Wimbledon. The two clicked immediately.
"I'm a person who talks, and it was very difficult for me because when you work with a male coach, most of them don't talk," Kostyuk said. "They cannot express what you feel and adjust."
"I've been coached by my mom for most of my life, by a woman. I'm very happy and I really hope that examples of mine and Sandra will bring more coaches on tour and the girls will trust more women."
Currently, amid the longest and toughest travel stretch in her career, Kostyuk arrived for the China Open feeling, as she described, "hopeless." She had not posted back-to-back wins since Washington D.C. and lost a tough three-set duel to Daria Kasatkina in Tokyo.
But flash forward a few days and the 21-year-old Ukrainian knocked out No.7 Ons Jabeur 7-6(5), 6-1 to advance to her first WTA 1000 Round of 16. It was her third Top 10 win of the year and second under Zaniewska.
Still, Kostyuk is quick to point out that her success with Zaniewska can't be measured by results alone. If that were the litmus test, how could she explain the four-match losing streak she endured in North America this summer?
"Honestly, if I look at this trip result-wise, it's a disaster," Kostyuk said. "But there's another side that no one sees and I'm really proud of myself.
"Every day is a struggle, but I was really happy to have Sandra by my side on this journey. She says, 'Remember how in the beginning of the trip something would happen and you would not be able to play at all? Now look, you're laughing about it.' This is about the perspective.
"It's really nice to acknowledge these things and be aware of them because it makes you appreciate yourself more and be proud of yourself more."
Being easy on herself has always been a struggle for Kostyuk. Reminiscent of Coco Gauff's debut on the world stage at Wimbledon, Kostyuk was just 15 when she made her Hologic WTA Tour debut at the 2018 Australian Open, where she engineered an auspicious run to the third round.
But what should be a notable memory, Kostyuk is saddened to say, has become tainted. She has struggled over the past six years to live up to the promise of that run. Two years ago, she opened up about the depression she suffered afterward and the fear that she was being passed by other talented teens.
As she saw Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff soar into the Top 10, Kostyuk put even more pressure on herself. Instead of being proud of what she had achieved at such a young age, Kostyuk could only see what she hadn't. She hit a career-high at No.27 in May of this year, but regardless of her ranking or form, she still put an inordinate amount of pressure on herself to win.
"It's my constant state of mind since I'm 15," Kostyuk said. "Even not being close to a favorite, I still expect myself to put up a good fight and win. I'm trying to not be like that, but it's not easy."
Even on Tuesday, facing an in-form Jabeur, Kostyuk had to fight herself to keep expectations in check. She was tight to start the match and Zaniewska saw it.
Earlier in the week, a fan gifted Kostyuk a pair of large, yellow sunglasses. When Zaniewska put them on, Kostyuk could only laugh. All of a sudden, her coach looked like a bee.
"She kept the sunglasses and said she would put them on at the right time in the match," Kostyuk said. "On the changeover at 3-2, I looked at her and started laughing. I felt like I was tight and I felt it was not easy to get out of this."
Those little intuitive moments are what Kostyuk appreciates.
"I'm feeling very relaxed because I don't have to pretend or be scared, or I don't know how to tell her something because I don't know how she will react," Kostyuk said. "I'm very emotional so a lot of coaches before would try and control it, like you cannot throw your racquet or something like this. She just lets me be how I am and who I am. We feel free."
Finding that line between her competitive ambition and a more relaxed approach to her career is the key for Kostyuk. Now that she feels free to unburden herself and take on her coach's words of wisdom, Kostyuk is settling into a more mature perspective on life as a professional tennis player.
Kostyuk says she realized she was spending too much energy beating herself up after losses.
"There is nothing you can change about the fact that you lost. You can see it two ways, positive and negative. Positive is, you sit down and you really consciously and honestly, with yourself and your coach, talk about what we have to do and you sit and you work.
"Or you can sit and destroy yourself and talk about how everything you do is wrong. You cannot build on this. You cannot grow, because every time you will hold it in and you will have a three-loss streak and you will break down. So it's about keeping the emotions and having low highs and high lows."