After winning the Mumbai Open championship point after just over an hour of dominant tennis, Aryna Sabalenka fell down flat on the ground in a celebration as emotive as she is on court. The 19-year-old from Belarus had just won the biggest title of her career with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic in the final on Sunday, and was soaking in the standing ovation from the crowd.
For anyone who watched her play through the week at the WTA 125K tournament, it is evident that it won’t be long before she goes on to claim bigger titles. Still a teenager, her game is potent mix of raw power and agile precision, already setting her up for a top WTA billing in the near future. In fact, after her title run she has jumped 23 places to a career-best 73 and will play Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the next season, as a direct entry.
After a breakthrough season in 2017, when she broke into top-100 of the WTA singles rankings, Sabalenka reached her first WTA final at the Tianjin Open – where she lost to Maria Sharapova – and reached the Fed Cup final. Finishing with a trophy at a tournament she has dominated through the week was the icing on the cake. And with the quality she showed in Mumbai, the title was inevitable.
In her five matches in Mumbai, one could see the range she is capable of. In the very first set of her opening match against Australian Priscilla Hon, she was taken to the brink. But she bounced back in her fierce manner to notch a 7-5, 6-1 win.
But it was in the second match against China’s Jia-Jing Lu where she was really stretched. After losing the tie-breaker in the first set, she claimed the second 6-2 and was 5-3 down in the deciding set, before overpowering the crafty Chinese to win 6-7(5), 6-2, 7-6(4) in two-and-a-half hours. This match showed her immense mental resolve and power game, hanging on despite staring at defeat.
It was all smooth-sailing after that as she went past the big-serving fifth seed Naomi Broady 6-4, 6-2 in the quarters and outmuscled France’s Amandine Hesse 6-2, 6-3 in the semi-final.
“I am in shock because I won first WTA titles in doubles and singles this season,” she said after the match. But what really stood out in her post-match chat was when she thanked her coaches and said, “I know it’s not always easy to work with me!”
It’s a thought echoed by her Russian coach Khalil Ibragimov, who has travelled with her for all tournaments since one-and-a-half years. But not because Sabalenka is a difficult player, but because she is a precocious one. The 19-year-old is very animated on court, letting all her emotions show, whether through her grunts or the occasional racket slamming. Before and during a match, she has a steely expression on and the ferociousness with which she hits her winners indicates a fierce competitor.
“Aryna is very expressive, but even if she is harsh, I know it is only her emotions showin,” Ibragimov told The Field. “The thing is, she is 19 years old and not as experienced. She tends to get emotional on court and it is something we work on and she is getting better.”
Ask her whether her on-court aggression is anything like her off-court manner and she dismissed it with a laugh, saying that the court is a different space for her.
“When I am on the court I live there, all my emotions,” she said. “For me it’s something different, I have been doing the same work since I was six, this is my life. After playing for 13 years, when you make some really stupid mistake, you just want to crush the rackets.
“It’s only on the court, it’s something you can’t live without. You have to be aggressive and push the opponent, you can’t be nice there,” she added.
But after her win, she is a much more relaxed and cheerful chatting about her fondness for cheese garlic naan and how she kept thinking of it on her flight to India. Sabalenka is the kind of player who leaves it all on the court, and Ibragimov said that at times, she works so hard, he has to push her to rest a little.
“Her game has improved a lot this season. Sometimes she takes some steps back, but after that she takes 10 steps forward because she is always working, throughout the day. She doesn’t know what it is to be outside of tennis. She keeps practising a lot, from tennis to physical and sometimes it is hard to stop her. Sometimes you have to make her rest, because it is important,” he said.
As her coach said, Sabalenka is by no means finished product yet. Her inexperience on the circuit showed in some of the more audacious points she tried to chase. While she has a powerful service game and a second serve that actually looks better than some of the other players’ first, she also tends to get unsettled easily.
As was the case when Jakupovic served a sudden under-arm ace which put the Belrussian off her game for a bit. But she recovered from it soon enough and even gave her opponent due credit for her clever trick. “Actually she did it well, because after that I made four mistakes while receiving. I’ve never seen this. It’s the first time somebody did this thing with me,” she said.
This is not her first time in India. She was here in 2015 when she won the ITF-level 25K tournament in Pune back in 2015. Now a top-75 player after her win in the 125K tournament in Mumbai, she looks set for a much bigger stage. Her coach hopes she can gain in experience and become one of the best players in the world. After a glimpse at the teenager’s potential, there is little doubt that Sabalenka is a future top-20 player in the very least, if she can keep up her level of fitness and add to her already explosive arsenal on court.
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