Wuhan (China) (AFP) - Aryna Sabalenka admits that the pressure of heightened expectations led to her sub-par results this season, and she regrets blaming her dip in form on her coach Dmitry Tursunov, whom she briefly parted ways with earlier this month.
Sabalenka, who started her Wuhan Open title defence with an impressive 6-1, 6-2 win over her fellow Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovich on Sunday, says a week alone without her team at a tournament in Zhengzhou after the US Open, helped her gain perspective and led her to reunite with Tursunov.
The big-hitting 21-year-old rocketed up the rankings last year, from 73 in the world at the start of 2018, to inside the top ten 12 months later, thanks to title runs in New Haven, Wuhan and Shenzhen.
But her progress, in singles, stalled a few weeks into the 2019 season, despite the success she was having alongside her doubles partner Elise Mertens, with whom she lifted the US Open trophy two weeks ago.
"For sure this season was really tough in singles so far. It was a lot of up and downs, on the court, off the court, everywhere," Sabalenka told AFP following her first-round win in Wuhan.
"And we had a lot of tough situations with Dmitry and we had a lot more at the US Open after that, we both said, 'I’m done'.
"After a few days we were like, 'I think it was a stupid decision and let’s maybe try to find the way how to communicate better, how to get back to trusting each other'.
"And it seems like some things clicked, especially after the US Open (doubles) title. He was there, he was supporting me, he didn’t leave me.
"After US Open I went for one week alone to a tournament, to be with myself, to maybe understand some things. Definitely I understood a lot and I can see that we are much better right now and I’m so happy with that."
The coaching carousel never stops spinning on the WTA tour and Sabalenka did not want to be just another player who decided to split with her coach when the going got tough.
The world number 13 assessed the real reasons behind her slump, and confessed that she is finally owning up to her own shortcomings.
"I just understood that all year I was saying to Dmitry, 'It’s your fault'. But when I was alone... I understood that it’s not about him, it’s because my focus was somewhere else instead of on the court," she concedes.
"And when I was alone on the court I couldn’t focus on something else because there was no one with me, and I was like it doesn’t matter what happens, I was sick, I was jetlagged, but still I found a way how to fight, how to play tennis, and I understood it’s actually not about Dmitry, it’s because of all the expectations, all the pressure I put on myself.
"Just one week alone, if we could have done it earlier, maybe things would have been different."
Sabalenka said the added pressure she put on herself this year led to her focusing on avoiding a loss, rather than chasing a win, and she felt scared to go for her shots on the court.
She says working with a psychologist has helped but that ultimately the best way to overcome her fears and doubts is to "just go through it".
"Then you start to understand what you have to do on the court to win, not to protect yourself from something you cannot protect," she added.
Having reached the final in San Jose last month, and with a US Open doubles crown now in her trophy cabinet, Sabalenka feels she’s may be ready to turn a new leaf.
"Something clicked in my mind. I was like, ‘Well, what am I doing here? I'm the tiger. I don't need to be afraid of something, I just need to go for it," she said with a laugh in her post-match press conference.
Sabalenka’s next test in Wuhan comes in the form of American Danielle Collins, who defeated Venus Williams in a topsy-turvy first round match on Sunday.