Aryna Sabalenka captured her second consecutive title on Sunday, with a convincing 7-5 6-2 victory over her good friend and doubles partner Elise Mertens at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz, and tied Simona Halep for most WTA titles won in 2020 in the process, with 3 apeice.
The first set was really tricky. There were lots of ups and down, but she was playing well. I led with a break but she kept fighting for every point. There was always pressure, and we were putting pressure on each other, so it was hard to strike a balance. Aryna Sabalenka
“This is something amazing,” Sabalenka said after the match. “I don’t want to say anything, and just cross my fingers so more wins come to me.
“This is the perfect end to my season, so I can be happy and relaxed for my holidays and pre-season.
“I’ll keep working to make sure I can maintain this level next season.”
The Belarusian navigated a tricky opening set to outlast the No 2 seed to win her 8th career tour title after an hour and 42 minutes on grey indoor hard court at the TipsArena Linz.
In search of her first WTA title since the 2019 Qatar Total Open, Mertens tried to capitalise on a sudden dip in Sabalenka’s form late in opener, breaking the Belarusian to serve for the first set.
“I think the first set was really tight,” Mertens said after the match. “She’s a very powerful player, so it’s difficult to get in a neutral position.”
Sabalenka steadied herself to win a titanic 11th game on serve after enduring 7 deuces and staving off 3 break points, and took that momentum through the first set and into a 3-0 lead in the second.
“It was a really tough set, so I’m happy to have be able to handle it because that helped me be freer in the second,” the top seed said. “I was much more relaxed in the second set.”
Mertens added. “She’s more consistent now. We saw how amazingly she played in Ostrava, too. She’s on a roll, so it’s difficult to get rhythm into the court, and just get into the court in general.”
The Belgian made one last charge as she threatened to get things back on serve, but Sabalenka was in full flow, saving 2 more break points before ultimately securing her victory with a scintillating backhand winner.
“The first set was really tricky,” Sabalenka admitted. “There were lots of ups and down, but she was playing well. I led with a break but she kept fighting for every point.
“There was always pressure, and we were putting pressure on each other, so it was hard to strike a balance.”
The Belarusian, who won both Wuhan and the WTA Elite Trophy to end 2019, continues to finish her seasons on a high note, and has improved her post US Open record to a combined 25-4 match wins for both 2019 and 2020.
Sabalenka and Mertens, who have been doubles partners for much of the last two years, celebrated with their traditional jumping winners pose after the match.
With the win, Sabalenka will finish the season ranked No 10, knocking Serena Williams back one spot to No 11, and with an eye now firmly on the Australian Open.
“At Grand Slams, I would think about how big they are, and put a lot of pressure on myself.,” said Sabalenka, who has yet to reach a major quarter-final. “I’ll try not to do that again, and know that everything I have to do is just go on court, bring my level, and give everything I have.
“That’s what I’ll focus on, on what I can control. Before, I would try to control everything, and overthink too much. Clearly, that wasn’t working.”
The 22-year old has now won 9 straight matches after also taking the title in Ostrava last month and credits credits a refined coaching team and pre-match preparation for her 2020 surge.
After trailing 0-6 0-4 in her quarter-final against Sara Sorribes Tormo in Ostrava, she finally felt ready to play and orchestrated a remarkable comeback win.
“I learned that I need to move a lot in my warm-ups in order to feel the court really well,” she said. “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.
“I find it’s helping me to work really hard from the beginning of my matches.
“I’ve had a lot of matches where I was out of in the first set, and then by the time I was able to come back, we’d be in a third set, and those can be 50/50, so, I’m trying to put pressure on my opponents from the beginning of every match.
“I’ve also been working on the variation of my shots, so I’m not just one kind of player and can use every shot I have in my pocket.”
Now in charge of that preparation is former hitting partner Anton Dubrov, a holdover from her original coaching team that long featured former ATP pro Dmitry Tursunov.
“It’s important for me that I was able to have success without Dmitry, because we worked together for such a long time, and I started winning with him,” she said.
“It was tough to make the decision to split because in the beginning, I was questioning myself and whether it was the right thing.
“Anton has really helped me a lot to go through this process, and now I feel very confident working with him.
“This is definitely good for us to be successful, and so we’ll keep working and pushing hard to win more matches.”
She spent the beginning of the tour resumption with coach Dieter Kindlmann, but parted ways before Roland Garros and promoted Dubrov to streamline her evolving process.
“I was working for a long time with Dmitry, and Anton was my hitting partner,” she noted after her quarter-final in Linz. “They knew me really well, and so I never had to worry about telling my team what I liked and didn’t like to do.
“Working with Dieter was difficult, mentally, for me, because it took him time to get to know me. He had thought about my game and how I have to work, which were different from my thoughts.
“I made the decision, then, to work with Anton as a coach, and I think we’re doing well.
“I want to keep working with just him because I feel much better when I’m with someone who knows me well, and I don’t have to overthink.
“It really affected my focus because I ended up expending energy on other things that there wasn’t enough left over for my matches.”
With the usual year-ending WTA Finals in China cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament in Austria is the last of the 2020 season, leaving Sabalenka and her new mind-set aiming to translate her autumn success onto the Grand Slam stage.
In the doubles final that began the day, No 4 seeds Arantxa Rus & Tamara Zidansek completed their top seed sweep to win their 2nd title of 2020 as a team, dispatching Lucie Hradecka & Katerina Siniakova, 6-3 6-4.