WUHAN, China - Dmitry Tursunov took over the coaching reins for 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka during the grass season and together they've engineered a dominating run through the last four months.
The young Belarusian began the season ranked No.78 and now sits at a career-high No.20, having tallied seven Top 10 wins since June, including wins over Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova, Elina Svitolina, and Karolina Pliskova, and winning her first WTA title in August in New Haven. Alongside US Open champion Naomi Osaka, French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, and No.13 Daria Kasatkina, Sabalenka has become one of the most dangerous young players on tour.
Now into the quarterfinals of the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, Sabalenka has posted an impressive 17-4 main draw record since Wimbledon, with her only two Top 10 losses coming to No.1 Simona Halep (Cincinnati semifinals) and No.2 Wozniacki (Eastbourne final).
WTA Insider sat down with Tursunov for an extended interview during the US Open to get his perspective on Sabalenka's meteoric rise. An ATP player who won seven titles over his career and reached a career-high ranking at No.20 in 2006, Tursunov has found good success as a WTA coach, having also spent time with Elena Vesnina earlier this season.
WTA Insider: What do you think has been the key to her rise this summer?
Tursunov: She's extremely athletic. Not so coordinated yet, but a lot of people tend to forget that she's 20 and she's still sort of developing and learning how to get into her body. And I think men, in general, at the younger age, they're a lot more athletic in terms of they just play a lot more games, whether it's soccer football or baseball. It's a natural way of learning how to coordinate your limbs. And so obviously girls tend to do a little bit less of that.
I think those girls that are very coordinated, they're generally very coordinated because they've been exposed to a lot of different sports and they're able to learn how to move. So I think she's going to get better. We're trying to sort of work on that in a fun way so that it's not too stressful on her and her mind.
But the main thing is that she's been incredibly receptive and she wants to learn, she wants to get better, and she has the right mindset for that. So that's helped her tremendously.
Where I've seen a lot of the times players tend to stall is with their mindset. They do have the ability, they have everything at their disposal, but they're not willing to change into more. They're too afraid to change or they're too afraid to try something different and that a lot of times holds them back from improving. She's been quite the opposite.
She basically allows someone else to help her build the game around her strengths. She's very gifted, so it's a lot easier. But nevertheless, I think still the first and foremost is not her physical ability or her talent or her very aggressive mindset on the court. First and foremost is the fact that she's willing to work on the hardest things.
A lot of people tend to focus on externals, whether it's the racket or the strings, or they think if they change their grips they're going to start playing better. So they're looking for a lot of the external things to change because while they're doing that they don't have to focus on themselves.
That's what she's been addressing. She's been willing to change herself and her mind, her attitude, and her mindset about how she should be playing. It's been actually incredible to watch how quickly she improves just because she's been open to something new.
WTA Insider: The speed at which she's improved has been amazing. If you watched her at the beginning of the season or last year, the phrase that came to mind was "ballbasher". She sees it and wants to hit it. It was a very one-dimensional, North-South game. When I was sitting courtside in Cincinnati, there was much more intention in what she was trying to do. That's a fast improvement from six months ago.
Tursunov: I think the fact is that she was sort of told that she's a ballbasher and she was told she's stupid and she doesn't need to think on the court because that's not what she's good at. She was just told to hit the ball as hard as she could. So she was doing that.
The job of someone who is working with her is to recognize her true abilities, what she's capable of. Whether she's capable of playing complex patterns or whether that confuses her. My job is to identify what you can improve on and also be open to the fact that, for example, maybe she's good at making dropshots. Sure, they don't look pretty, but they're effective. They have to be effective.
A lot of times you have to sort of also prove yourself. With some of the players that I've helped, I didn't coach for that long, but I always sort of threw in ideas. If I was at an academy and I was injured and I was helping coach the little kids, I always felt that I have to prove myself to someone I'm trying to explain something because it's really just about the trust. Do they trust you, that what you're saying is correct or not.
It's almost like a religious conversion. You can't force that on somebody. Someone has to trust you and believe you and you have to be able to state your case with conviction and explain it to a very minor detail and be able to answer any question that the player has. If you're not able to explain it, if you're just basically using your authority and saying, well I'm the coach and this is how you do it, that very quickly shuts down the receptiveness of a player. I feel like she's been allowing me to help her.
I'm not going to start changing technique, or I'm not going to do a lot of things that maybe make sense to do. Right now is not a good time. Right now you need to show her that you know what you're talking about. You have to kind of understand what she's feeling, how she's feeling, what she's afraid of, what she feels very strong or passionate about, and work with that and see what can you help her change so that she feels that you understand her and that you're able to get the job done.
Now it's a little bit easier. I'm sure that there are going to be moments in our relationship where she might start losing the trust or she may feel that I'm focusing on something that is not very important. I think that's what happens between a coach and a player where they start seeing things a little different. But right now it's not the case. Right now she wants to improve. She feels like she's improving.
I'm trying to be careful about what things I want to change. I've seen comments about her dropshot, that she's using two hands. Ok, so I change it to one hand, I force her to do it and she starts doing it. But that's really not going to improve her performance that much. So instead of focusing on that, I'd rather address something that does affect her and can help her win a few more points.
I'm sort of looking at it from a perspective of, if I was a player what would I want the coach to be like. Would I want him to be just using his authority to drive the point home or would I want him to come and look at it from my perspective, show a different way of looking at an issue.
So I think it's a symbiotic relationship where I have to adjust to her a lot and stay open-minded. She's the priority anyway, so sometimes you just have to bite your tongue and be patient. Some days she's receptive, some days she's got too many other things in her head and she doesn't really want to listen and she doesn't want to practice, so you have to take your foot off the gas and just let her stumble around and hit her pinky toe against the corner of the bed in order to say, OK I don't know what I'm doing, what do you think?
Just like in any relationship between two people, boyfriend-girlfriend, co-workers, a boss and an employee, you have to understand also the other person's point of view and also maybe sometimes put that as a priority and not put your ego in front but just really say OK, why does she feel like that? What could be the issue? Why is she like that? And sort of work backwards from that, and sometimes you find the root of the problem is completely different to what the actual issue on the surface is. So you work with that and a lot of other things fall into place.
WTA Insider: Does success help or hurt her, in terms of your coaching relationship? I've heard coaches say they don't want the success to come too fast because then it's harder to coach someone who is getting success sometimes. On the other hand it can help because they buy into the program. How is it with her?
Tursunov: I can definitely understand both sides, and I do agree that success sometimes can sort of create an illusion that everything is perfect and that you achieved the top, which isn't the case. She still has miles to learn and I think that's what's important. It should be important for the player and my job is to get her enthusiastic about it, to get really interested in learning and enjoy the process more than the actual result.
I think the current results are sort of the fruit from the tree, but you can't get the fruit without planting the tree first. So you have to do a lot of work a lot of background and foundation work for these results to happen. I think eventually she'll end up allowing that to go to her head and that'll come back and bite her. Then she'll fall on her butt and she'll say, OK what happened? You can't really protect from that.
I see that a lot of times people say, I've made this mistake so it's better to learn from someone else's mistake than make your own mistake, but I think in the end it doesn't matter how much you explain to a kid, don't stick your hands into the electrical outlet. They still want to do it. So you have to figure out a way to make it less painful.
Of course I would love for the success to not go to her head but you see nowadays how quickly that can spin out of control. It's definitely a danger. I feel like the people around her, the closest circle that is currently around her, they're very aware of when that success starts to affect her negatively.
We have to essentially be kind of like the moon boots, keep her down to the ground. It's probably one of the bigger dangers for someone like that because it's insane how quickly that bandwagon filled up. How quickly the people that never talked to me started contacting and saying, hey you know it's great, congratulations, we always believed in you.
I've seen this a few times over. I've had my share of experiences. But now she has to go through that.
Sometimes I talk about it but I don't want to be this guy that just says you need to do this and that. Sometimes she needs to get a little zap here and there and then it's a lot easier to drive your point home. So sometimes we let her, consciously, we will let her get certain things. And when they do affect her and she comes back and is like, whoa what the hell is happening, then it's a lot easier to explain and then rationalize.
WTA Insider: Do you have any examples of instances where she got stung by the success?
Tursunov: I think there's definitely just too much interaction with the social media for her, and I mean for anybody really. But she's actually she's quite smart. So she's aware she sees how sometimes people react, how they used to behave, how they behave now.
Her life has been sort of a whirlwind recently. But we've talked about it a few times saying, well imagine what it was like two years, one year ago. What was it like for you? Where were you? Who was helping you? Which people gave you money to travel? Who were you working with? Who was your circle of friends? How do people respond to you? And what is it now?
She also has to be aware of the fact that it can go from this top of the world, she can tumble to the bottom of the hill so quickly if anything goes wrong. So she needs to be aware of that as well, because you can't lose your head in the clouds and feel like I made it and I can do whatever I want. There's a long list of people who were helping her. If she was pushing the rock up the hill, there were a lot of people that were helping her with that.
We talk about it and we use examples of the ones that she actually sees, in order to really show her how quickly this can fall apart, how quickly that bandwagon can get empty. So she does, I think, understand that.
But she's also 20 and it's hard to stay and discipline yourself. Sometimes you gotta give yourself these cheat days where you want to be a girl, and you want to be a 20-year-old girl, and be 20-year-old girl who gets all this attention. Everyone enjoys being complimented, but she definitely needs to also be realistic.
So many people in general, not just tennis players, but anyone who's become successful, they used that success to determine what kind of person they are. That's a dangerous path to go on.