After spending 2018 rapidly ascending the global tennis ranks, Aryna Sabalenka decided to spend some of her brief off-season in free fall. So during a winter visit to Dubai, Sabalenka said, she took the opportunity to bungee jump from 41 floors up.
“These three seconds before you jump, it’s like something unbelievable,” the 20-year-old Belarusian said in a recent telephone interview. “You want to cry, smile and laugh.”
The daring off-season activity underscored the intensity and cheerfulness that came to define Sabelenka as she burst into scene last year, winning her first two WTA titles.
“She’s always very friendly,” said her coach, Dmitry Tursunov. “She likes to be in a good mood.”
She also likes to win, and she has started where she left off after her breakthrough campaign, becoming the first WTA titlist of 2019 by defeating Alison Riske, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3, in the final of the tournament in Shenzhen, China, last Saturday.
Now Sabalenka can add one more label: dark horse to win the Australian Open, where she could establish herself as not just an up-and-comer but 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 told reporters this week. “She’s going to win the Australian Open.”
The title in Shenzhen helped her return to a career-best ranking of No. 11 on the eve of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament. And despite a stumble at her next tournament — a first-round loss to No. 8-ranked Petra Kvitova in Sydney — Sabalenka’s recent tear has put her on more than one list 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,” said Sophie Amiach, a former Australian Open quarterfinalist in singles and doubles who is 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 is seeking to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
But the overwhelming force that has fueled Sabalenka’s rise can also be difficult to harness at times. Her serves and forehands can misfire by yards, and her shot selection is sometimes questionable.
That inconsistency might have been what prompted a bit of criticism from Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko when he met Sabalenka in November.
“I am happy with your performance,” he was quoted saying by the news agency 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 started to rein in her game while still blasting winners. It helped Sabalenka, the only player to take a set off Osaka during her run to the United States Open title last fall, rise to No. 13 by the end of 2018 after beginning the year ranked 73rd. Her eight wins over top-10 players last year — all after June — were behind only Kiki Bertens and Elina Svitolina.
And Sabalenka toppled Svitolina, the eventual champion at the WTA Finals in October, on the way to her biggest 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,” said Tursunov, whose used a similarly powerful style to win seven ATP titles in his career. “And I think that kind of summarizes her improvement.”
Before he became Sabalenka’s coach during the summer grass-court swing last year, Tursunov had already been impressed by his future charge’s performance and attitude as he observed her on tour.
At last year’s tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., Tursunov looked on as the player he was then coaching, Elena Vesnina, faced Sabalenka and her countrywoman Victoria Azarenka in a doubles match with Ekaterina Makarova. Vesnina and Makarova, the tournament’s top seeds, prevailed, 6-4, 6-3.
“She didn’t get fazed when she was being rifled at,” Tursunov said, “and a few times they were just going at her and knocked her down on her butt. She was kind of sitting and giggling.
“Those are the things that just kind of stuck in my mind,” he added. “The way she was handling tough situations, and situations where she was being outplayed.”
Sabalenka attributes some of that mental toughness to her roots in Belarus. Money was scarce, so she did not compete in any junior Grand Slam events, and participated in just four tournaments outside Europe.
“I could play tennis, but no one believed in me that much,” Sabalenka said. “Actually I think this kind of thing helped me to improve my game.
“Before, I was actually upset with it. They think I am not the best player, and it made me work extra hard and improve my game.”
It was with the Belarusian Fed Cup team, however, that Sabalenka emerged on the broader scene, in 2017. She won the decisive match point against Bertens, another breakthrough performer in 2018, in a semifinal victory against the Netherlands before Belarus fell to the United States in the final.
Even as her ranking climbs and her goals become loftier, Sabalenka said she did not intend to skip the Fed Cup series. Her energy seems to resonate throughout 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, said in an email.
Neither that grit nor the smiles will escape Sabalenka anytime soon.
“I’m smiling and laughing,” she said. “I don’t want to be too serious because this is not me.
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