Aryna Sabalenka typically cuts two figures on the tennis court. Holding a match point against Ajla Tomljanovic at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open, she intimidates even on defense, crunching an off-balance backhand return down the line to set up a final forehand that is less winner and more coup de grâce—struck with the full breadth of her wingspan to end the contest, 7-5, 6-4.
Suddenly Sabalenka, The Girl with the Tiger Tattoo, is sheepish, smirking towards her team at the margin—or lack thereof—she allowed for that last shot, which lost little velocity as it bounced out of her Aussie opponent’s reach.
“Of course, you’re trying to go for bigger targets, because it’s windy and you cannot go down the lines or close to the baseline,” she outlined in press after the match. “Bigger targets are definitely my tactic in these conditions.”
The best laid plans, it seems, can bend to occasional improv from the Belarusian, who extends her winning streak to 11 in a row, dating back to the two titles in Ostrava and Linz with which she ended the 2020 season.
“I’m kind of staying in the moment. Those matches happened in the past. I’m just trying to stay focused on my game and work on everything so I can do my best against every opponent. This kind of mentality helped me build my confidence.”
Confidence was harder to come by last fall, when she struggled to reclaim the rhythm that had helped her start the year with a third Premier 5 title at the Qatar Total Open. Following the COVID-19 lockdown, the world No. 10 was 8-5 through Roland Garros, where she found herself outfoxed by Ons Jabeur before the second week.
Friday’s win over Tomljanovic gives Sabalenka a shot at revenge against the fast-rising Tunisian.
“I’m just going to play tomorrow against her, respect her game, stay calm and work for every point. She’s a tricky player and that’s going to be hard, but I’m ready for long rallies and the hard work necessary for this win.”
It was in Ostrava where Sabalenka and team—led by former hitting partner Anton Dubrov—decided to bring new meaning to hard work when it came to her pre-match preparation. After losing the first 10 games of her quarterfinal to Sara Sorribes Tormo, she realized it helped to have a set under her belt before stepping onto the match court.
“It’s not just about warming up from the middle and doing a few cross courts; I need to get tired before I get on court,” she explained back in November. “I find it’s helping me to work really hard from the beginning of my matches.”
With a career defined by slow starts and strong finishes—six of her eight WTA titles have come in the final four months of the season—Sabalenka wants 2021 to be memorable throughout, especially with the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon.
“Last year, I was waiting for my first Olympics and now I’m waiting for it this year, as well. I’ll prepare myself as good as I can in order to play my best there. I’ll get to represent my country, and I think that’s really important right now.
“I’ll do everything I can to make sure Belarus looks good and strong there, and I’m actually really happy to go back to Asia. I like playing there and I’ve missed being there a lot.”
This more serious approach hasn’t transformed Sabalenka into an entirely different person. Her press conferences can still include blooper-reel worthy content and her off-season Instagram features the 22-year-old in audacious photoshoots and sporting an array of hairstyles, showcasing an outgoing personality seemingly too big for a restrictive quarantine bubble.
“I’m more a person who likes to have fun at home when I have free time,” she reassures. “At tournaments, I have the same schedule: hotel and courts. I usually don’t go out too much. If I have time, I like to see a little of the city and see the rest after the tournament. Now I don’t feel so different, honestly!
“That’s why I think I feel ok in these conditions and fine with staying in the bubble,” she finishes before verbally knocking on wood. “Hopefully in Australia it’ll be ok!”