After spending 2018 quickly ascending the world tennis ranks, Aryna Sabalenka determined to spend a few of her temporary low season in free fall. So throughout a winter go to to Dubai, Sabalenka mentioned, she took the alternative to bungee bounce from 41 flooring up.
“These three seconds before you jump, it’s like something unbelievable,” Sabalenka, a 20-year-old Belarusian, mentioned in a current phone interview. “You want to cry, smile and laugh.”
The daring low season exercise underscored the depth and cheerfulness that got here to outline Sabalenka as she burst onto the scene final 12 months, profitable her first two WTA titles.
“She’s always very friendly,” mentioned her coach, Dmitry Tursunov. “She likes to be in a good mood.”
She additionally likes to win, and she or he has began the place she left off after her breakthrough marketing campaign, turning into the first WTA titlist of 2019 by defeating Alison Riske, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3, in the ultimate of the match in Shenzhen, China, on Saturday.
Now Sabalenka can add another label: darkish horse to win the Australian Open, the place she may set up herself not simply as an up-and-comer however as considered one of the sport’s pacesetters.
“I’m telling you here, right now, that the winner of the Australian Open women’s side is going to be Sabalenka, O.K.?” the ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe instructed reporters this week. “She’s going to win the Australian Open.”
The title in Shenzhen helped her return to a career-best rating of No. 11 on the eve of the 12 months’s first Grand Slam match. And regardless of a stumble at her subsequent match — a first-round loss to eighth-ranked Petra Kvitova in Sydney — Sabalenka’s current tear has put her on a couple of listing of Australian Open favorites.
“If you look at the top 20 players, especially with her age, she is probably the most dangerous one right now because of the power,” mentioned Sophie Amiach, a former Australian Open quarterfinalist in singles and doubles who’s now an analyst for the WTA’s world feed.
“Besides the given, Serena, everybody else, the power is there, but I don’t think it’s as much as what she has,” Amiach added, referring to Serena Williams, who’s looking for to equal Margaret Court’s file of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
But the overwhelming power that has fueled Sabalenka’s rise may also be tough to harness at instances. Her serves and forehands can misfire by yards, and her shot choice is usually questionable. Seesaw matches proved a mainstay for Sabalenka in 2018, main to a WTA-high 29 third units contested.
That inconsistency might need been what prompted a little bit of criticism from President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus when he met Sabalenka in November.
“I am happy with your performance,” he was quoted saying by the information company BeITA, “except for several moments when the ball went out of court while you could keep it in the game.”
But like her fellow rising star Naomi Osaka, 21, Sabalenka has began to rein in her recreation whereas nonetheless blasting winners. It helped Sabalenka, the solely participant to take a set off Osaka throughout her run to the United States Open title final fall, rise to No. 13 by the finish of 2018 after starting the 12 months ranked 73rd. Her eight wins over top-10 gamers final 12 months — all after June — positioned her behind solely Kiki Bertens and Elina Svitolina.
And Sabalenka toppled Svitolina, the eventual champion at the WTA Finals in October, on the approach to her greatest title, in Wuhan, China, a month earlier.
“She is a quick learner, but I feel also she is a quick learner because she is passionate about it and wants to do it,” mentioned Tursunov, who used a equally highly effective fashion to win seven ATP titles in his profession. “And I think that kind of summarizes her improvement.”
Before he turned Sabalenka’s coach throughout the summer season grass-court swing final 12 months, Tursunov had already been impressed by his future cost’s efficiency and perspective as he noticed her on tour.
At final 12 months’s match in Indian Wells, Calif., Tursunov appeared on as the participant he was then teaching, Elena Vesnina, confronted Sabalenka and her countrywoman Victoria Azarenka in a doubles match with Ekaterina Makarova. Vesnina and Makarova, the match’s prime seeds, prevailed, 6-4, 6-3.
“She didn’t get fazed when she was being rifled at,” Tursunov mentioned, “and a few times they were just going at her and knocked her down on her butt. She was kind of sitting and giggling.”
He added: “Those are the things that just kind of stuck in my mind. The way she was handling tough situations, and situations where she was being outplayed.”
Sabalenka attributes a few of that psychological toughness to her roots in Belarus. Money was scarce, so she didn’t compete in any junior Grand Slam occasions and took part in simply 4 tournaments outdoors Europe.
“I could play tennis, but no one believed in me that much,” Sabalenka mentioned. “Actually I believe this sort of factor helped me to enhance my recreation.
“Before, I used to be truly upset with it. They assume I’m not the greatest participant, and it made me work further laborious and enhance my recreation.”
It was with the Belarusian Fed Cup staff, nonetheless, that Sabalenka emerged on the broader scene, in 2017. Belarus superior to the ultimate, with Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich falling to the Americans Shelby Rogers and CoCo Vandeweghe in the deciding doubles match in Minsk.
Even as her rating climbs and her targets change into loftier, Sabalenka mentioned she didn’t intend to skip the Fed Cup collection. Her vitality appears to resonate all through the squad.
“She is always fighting, so when playing on a team with her, you just cannot go down, because you are just getting involved in this flow she creates,” Vera Lapko, her fellow 20-year-old Belarusian, mentioned in an e mail.
Neither that grit nor the smiles will escape Sabalenka anytime quickly.
“I’m smiling and laughing,” she mentioned. “I don’t want to be too serious because this is not me.”