ABU DHABI, U.A.E. — Aryna Sabalenka can’t lose. The 22-year-old Belarusian finished the 2020 season with back-to-back titles and she kicked off her 2021 season with another, defeating Veronika Kudermetova 6-2, 6-2 to win the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open.
Sabalenka’s winning week extended her career-best winning streak to 15 matches, secured her third consecutive title and ninth of her career, and will propel her to a new career-high ranking on Monday at No.7.
That’s not a bad week of work.
Sabalenka joined the WTA Insider Podcast from Abu Dhabi and reveals how losing her father put her tennis in perspective and how she plans to deal with the heightened expectations as she heads to the Australian Open as the hottest player on tour.
WTA Insider: Congratulations on another title run. What do you make of your week in Abu Dhabi?
Sabalenka: This is such an amazing week for me. I’ve been fighting through everything, doing everything I can in each match, and I’m just really, really happy with this title. To start the season with a title is something really unbelievable.
WTA Insider: Finishing the 2020 season winning back-to-back titles in Ostrava and Linz and then going into your pre-season, when you got to Abu Dhabi did you feel like you were trying to pick up where you left off or was this a new beginning?
Sabalenka: This was a new beginning. I’m not focusing on the past. What happened there, happened there. Now it’s a clean [slate] and you have to start from the beginning.
I’m actually surprised by this title because I’ve been practicing indoors on a different surface and coming here, the outdoor courts are a really different bounce. Also it’s a little windy here. To handle these conditions and win this title is something I’m really proud of. I’m really happy.
WTA Insider: You only dropped one set during the tournament. What was the key to making the adjustment so quickly?
Sabalenka: I would say I wasn’t getting pissed during the practices. Before the tournament, I didn’t play well and it was tough to adjust. I was staying calm and kept working and kept trying to find it.
I also didn’t have any expectations. I was focusing on my game, focusing on my movement. I think this was the key. In the matches, my focus was on my game and the movement. I wasn’t focusing on the conditions or anything.
I was just playing with what I had. Some days I didn’t feel my forehand, some days I didn’t feel my backhand, some days I didn’t have my serve. But I’m really proud that I kept going and kept fighting and kept trying to find my shots. This is what worked really well this week and what I’m really happy with.
WTA Insider: You were still a teenager when you had your breakthrough on the WTA Tour and not many people knew much about you because you didn’t play much of the junior Slams. The tour was also quite new to you. In the beginning, maybe you felt like you had to always play your top-level game to win every match. But now it sounds like you understand you don’t have to play your best tennis to win every match. How different does that feel?
Sabalenka: When you come on your first WTA tournament, you’re thinking that you have to overdo something, overhit sometimes, or you think you need to make only winners and you think that without the winners, or without your serve or your shots, you cannot win any match. That’s why sometimes you get overexcited and you overdo something.
Over the years you realize this is not necessary. Sometimes just putting the ball in, this is enough. Sometimes if something is not working, it’s ok, you still can compete and you still can win matches. I think this is what really helps me right now and this is what really helps me stay calm in the matches even if something is going wrong.
I know I will have my opportunity and I just have to be ready for them. I just have to keep playing and keep fighting and that’s it. This is the difference between the young player and the player that has experience.
WTA Insider: When does this come to this realization? There does seem to be an air of calm about you in the way you’ve played your last 15 matches. When did you begin to have this more settled mentality about your tennis.
Sabalenka: I think after that match (in the second round of Ostrava against Sara Sorribes Tormo) when I was down 0-6, 0-4, I think after that one I understood anything can happen. No matter what you have to keep fighting. You don’t have to get upset about anything. You just have to do your job and that’s it.
And also I think it started a little bit earlier when I lost my dad. I think after that moment I just understood there are so many things in life to be worried about and tennis is just a small part of my life, in the big picture. Of course I don’t like to lose and I’m worried about tennis and doing everything I can, but we have to enjoy our life, we have to enjoy our time on the court, enjoy the opportunities we have.
This happened one year ago, but to find this kind of mentality takes some time. I would say after that match in Ostrava, everything just clicked.
WTA Insider: You have talked a lot about perspective this week. You’ve seemed quite nonchalant in press conferences this week, like none of this is a big deal.
Sabalenka: This is how I feel right now, this how I am right now. There are still some moments in the match where I’m getting emotional, but overall I’m really calm and enjoying my time on court. I will do everything I can to keep in it and be on this kind of mentality. This is what really helped me win all these matches.
WTA Insider: You say what’s in the past is in the past, but we’re about to Melbourne for the first Slam of the year and undoubtedly you will get questions about your 15-match winning streak. Do you have a strategy on how to deal with that? How do you plan to keep such an even-keel during a very intense four to five weeks in Melbourne?
Sabalenka: This will be really tough. About all these questions: so I know they’re gonna ask a lot of questions about this, on Twitter, I will see it. On the last match I saw it and I try not to use the internet a lot because I don’t want to see all those messages. So I’m ready for these questions.
I know that I can lose. Everyone can lose. But I will do everything I can to keep winning. If I lose then it’s fine. I just want to make sure I did everything I could. But it’s really tough, but I think I can handle it.
WTA Insider: Is there anything you’re looking forward to as you look ahead to Australia?
Sabalenka: I’m looking forward to the five hours out of the room (laughs). Looking forward to the practice weeks and also how I will handle the new conditions with preparation and looking forward to the next tournament. So many things to look forward to.
It’s going to be interesting to see how it feels to be in the bubble for two weeks and be out of the room for five hours for practice. Hopefully I will feel well after these two weeks and my body will be ready to compete on this high level.
WTA Insider: Speaking of physicality, last year you spoke of how important the win in Ostrava was in terms of cementing your coaching relationship with Anton. Can you talk about the work you did with your team during the pre-season? How is your body feeling after six matches in seven days?
Sabalenka: We worked a lot with Anton on the variation of my shots. He’s a really positive guy. He’s doing a really good job. He’s really young but he’s really smart and he knows what he’s doing. This makes me feel confident also.
With Jason, I just know this guy will prepare my body really well to be able to compete on these kinds of courts and to compete on this high level. To move this well, if I look back two years ago I wasn’t moving that well at all. The level of my movement right now, I’m really happy with the work we’ve done with Jason. There’s still lots to improve and we’ll keep working.
These guys really build my confidence for sure and I’m really happy to have them. They’re really nice, they’ll help me with everything I need, they’re positive, and they’re really fun when we’re together. They will prepare me really well for Melbourne. I think we’ll all do our best to make sure I’m ready for the Australia tournaments.