By Arthur Kapetanakis
Aryna Sabalenka was named the women’s US Open Series Breakout Performer for 2018 after reaching the Cincinnati semis and winning her first WTA title at the Connecticut Open. After a career-best fourth-round run at the US Open—where she was the only woman to take a set off eventual champ Naomi Osaka—the Belarusian claimed two more trophies soon after, including the WTA Premier 5 title in Wuhan, China.
The 21-year old currently sits at a career high of No. 9 in the WTA rankings, and has been no lower than No. 11 throughout 2019. She started her US Open Series with a final run at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, where she fell to Zheng Saisai. After advancing to Round 2 at the Western & Southern Open, where she is seeded ninth, Sabalenka will face the unseeded Chinese opponent again in Cincinnati.
Prior to that rematch, Sabalenka spoke with USOpenSeries.com about life as a Top-10 player, what she is working on to get her game to the next level, and her 2018 US Open run.
USOpenSeries.com: After rising up the ranks so quickly in 2018, how has life as a Top-10 player this season been different for you mentally?
Aryna Sabalenka: Of course I’m happy with the level I showed last year and the level I’m showing this year to be a top player. To have this opportunity to play on this level is amazing. I’m so happy with that and I’m just hoping that I can show my best for the next matches and the next years and hopefully I can be even better than I am right now.
It feels like you need to work even more than you were before, and that’s good.
USOpenSeries.com: Did you feel any added pressure this year to back up your success?
Aryna Sabalenka: In the beginning of this year I had this pressure, and I couldn’t really play with this pressure. After I think Wimbledon, I just changed my mental side, my thinking, and I’m just going to challenge myself for the next matches. It’s just going to be interesting to go out and play. Every time I’m going on the court, I have to show that I am on that level.
Right now, there’s no pressure. Right now, it’s really interesting to play; every match there are challenges.
USOpenSeries.com: You mentioned the mental aspect… what are the keys for you to reach the next level, to get into the Top 5 and compete consistently at the Slams?
Aryna Sabalenka: I’m very focused right now on the mental side of the game, to be honest. If, mentally, I’m coming out really strong, then it’s really tough to play against me because then it’s a more consistent game, it’s more balls coming back from my side. And I’m more aggressive on the court, and that’s actually the most important thing.
But at the same time, I’m trying to improve in my game, improve volleys, serves. I still need to work on these, and to be more consistent on the court, to not panic after one missed shot. There’s a lot of things to improve to be better than I am right now. There’s always something to improve to be honest, even if you’re No. 1 in the world.
USOpenSeries.com: Going back to the US Open, after you beat Petra Kvitova you had that great three-set match against Naomi Osaka in the fourth round. What did you learn from that experience, your best Grand Slam result?
Aryna Sabalenka: From that match against Osaka, I learned that if you had a lot of matches before the match, you don’t need to practice that much. Because I practiced a lot the day before (laughs).
But for real, I think I have to be more calm on the court and be ready for a big fight and be ready at the Open that I’m going to play until the end, I’m going to find a way to win. There are no easy matches.
And I think [I learned] to respect the opponent more. In the first set I was thinking, “OK, I got her.” And it seems like [later in the match], I couldn’t play games on my serve really well. I was always down love-40 or 15-40. I couldn’t win the match being under the pressure every time, that much.
For her, she can break my serve really easily when there isn’t really much pressure on her serve. That’s I think what I learned from that match.
USOpenSeries.com: After making the final in San Jose and having a nice opening-round win in Cincy, do you feel like you’re playing your best tennis?
Aryna Sabalenka: Well, I’m not really thinking that it was my best tennis, but I am happy with the fighting spirit which I’m showing on the court every match. It’s a lot of things to work on to show my best tennis and to win the matches.
But the mental side of my game has really improved and I’m happy with that.
USOpenSeries.com: What are your goals for the rest of the season and the US Open?
Aryna Sabalenka: The goals for the rest of the season… just challenge myself. I want to go out and show that I am better than my opponent and to play each point like it’s the last one. That’s my goal.
Honestly, everyone has the same goals—[to qualify for the] WTA Finals and [do well at] the Slams. The US Open is the last Slam of the year and everyone wants to win. So we all have the same goals, but the real goal, which helps us reach that main goal, is to go out on the court and fight for each point and show the opponent that you’re better than her at that moment.