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Miami heat recharges Aryna Sabalenka in time for US Open campaign
The 2021 semifinalist was out of sorts to start the season, but a mid-summer training bloc helped renew the fearless hitter’s mindset in time for a return to action in North America.
Published Sep 01, 2022
WATCH: Sabalenka showed encouraging improvements at the Western & Southern Open, where she reached the semifinals.
NEW YORK—Aryna Sabalenka’s season had hardly begun when she felt like it was time for a break.
“I was actually thinking after Doha and Dubai that I’d better just stop, take a little pause and work on things a little bit more because I was all over the place and I couldn’t handle myself,” she admitted after a first-round victory at the US Open. “There were so many things going on.”
Sabalenka’s first quarter of 2022 was less a kick off and more a crash landing: starting the year ranked just behind world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, it quickly became clear the Belarusian was in no technical condition to compete against the Aussie for major titles.
“I think it’s all about up here,” she explained, pointing to her head after overcoming Storm Sanders at the Australian Open. “I was thinking a lot about my serve and was trying to control everything, but this isn’t how it works. I have muscle memory and so I just have to trust myself.”
Her serve indeed abandoned her in Australia, leading to near-sets worth of double faults as she struggled to find any semblance of rhythm. The unrelenting yups and resulting poor form culminated in a fourth-round defeat to Kaia Kanepi in Melbourne.
I didn’t stop because I can’t. I feel really bad when I retire from matches, so even if I feel sad, I have to finish the match. I couldn’t retire from these tournaments just because I felt bad and say, what, mental health issue? Come on. I want to get back on top through work, so I decided to keep going. Aryna Sabalenka
Though things somewhat stabilized after early exits in Indian Wells and Miami, the game that took Sabalenka to back-to-back Grand Slam semifinals in 2021 had yet to return. Nevertheless, she persisted.
“I didn’t stop because I can’t,” she explained on Tuesday. “I feel really bad when I retire from matches, so even if I feel sad, I have to finish the match. I couldn’t retire from these tournaments just because I felt bad and say, what, mental health issue? Come on. I want to get back on top through work, so I decided to keep going.”
That relentless approach has taken her far in the past, but recognizing the need for change has taken her even farther. After finally parting with longtime coach Dmitry Tursunov, the man who first catalyzed her rise up the WTA rankings in 2018, she won 15 straight matches and three titles from the end of 2020 to the beginning of 2021.
“I would say our characters were too much the same,” she said of the split this week. “We’re both emotional people and I need someone who can step back, breathe, and then start to work with me, or someone who isn’t that emotional when I’m getting really crazy or doing bad stuff like throwing the racquet or whatever. When I do those kinds of emotional things in practice, I need someone to calmly tell me to stop, but Dmitry was the kind of coach who would start fighting with me, and this is not what I’m looking for.
“He has really good humor and is really funny guy; it’s a fun time to spend with him. But when he’s getting emotional, it’s like you want to kill someone!”
It appears a change in routine proved simpler than stopping it altogether, so it took the All England Club’s ban of Russian and Belarusian players from Wimbledon to force Sabalenka into a position to finally reset.
“It wasn’t a great idea to spend that time practicing in Miami because it was super hot and super humid, but maybe that’s why I’m kind of ready for this weather,” she joked. “I would say it was like I had another pre-season, another training bloc, but I’m super happy to be here and have this opportunity to play because I wouldn’t be able to handle another pre-season!
“But it was a really nice time in Miami; I really love to be there and it’s really beautiful. Even if I had some really hard training days, you’re still able to go on the beach, relax, and chill for the next day.”
Shaking off the rust after three-setters against Daria Kasatkina and Coco Gauff in San Jose and Toronto, Sabalenka looked back towards her best at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where she reached the semifinals.
Returning to the site of a heartbreaking semifinal to Leylah Fernandez, the 24-year-old is now able to employ a more optimistic view of her surroundings while making relatively quick work of American Catherine Harrison on Court 10.
“I expected they would support her more but at times it felt like they were supporting me more, so that was really nice.”
Sabalenka will get a full-circle test of her improvements as Kanepi looms next, but like her Miami training bloc, the No. 6 seed hopes the change of scenery will give her an advantage on Thursday.
“I played twice against her and I lost both times in Australia. Probably in America it will be different, and I hope I only lost because we were in Australia,” she exclaims, cracking herself up before adding, “She’s a great player in good shape and a really powerful player. She has a great serve, so it’ll be another interesting match.”
But did the time off teach her to consider pausing again in the future? Not exactly.
“I will always play a tournament even if I feel bad,” she insists, before pausing to caveat, “Unless I’m super injured! It should be something really crazy to make me stop playing.”