Aryna Sabalenka completed a remarkable transformation at the J&T Banka Ostrava Open on Sunday when she won both the singles and doubles titles, comprehensively out-striking compatriot Victoria Azarenka in the first all-Belarusian WTA Tour final in history.
I’m so excited I was able to handle a high level from her from the very first point. I was able to stay with her and it didn’t affect me, so I’m really happy to get this win. It’s so important for me. After some of the tough matches I had, I felt less pressure going into the others. I was able to play more freely, and I knew I could come back no matter what. Matches like the ones I played this week helped me be more consistent and focused. Aryna Sabalenka
The 22-year battled her demons to barely survive her two early round matches, needing to come from behind in both, coming back from a 2-5 deficit in the third set to beat Coco Gauff in her opener and then turning around a 6-0, 4-0 deficit to Sara Sorribes Tormo in Friday’s quarter-final by storming her way through 12 consecutive games.
Against the red-hot Jennifer Brady, she was rampant in her 6-4 6-4 semi-final win and then rolled over her team-mate, 6-2 6-2 in the title match.
“I have to be focused from the first point and my emotions have to all be in one place so I don’t lose my mind,” Sabalenka said. “Hopefully I’ll continue to find more solutions next year.”
Azarenka, who received a medical timeout early in the second set, apparently due to a neck issue, was far from her best but there was no stopping Sabalenka on Sunday and once the No 3 seed gains momentum, she is difficult to stop, having won 7 of her last 8 final appearances.
“This is not the best final, hopefully you will get better soon.” Sabalenka told Azarenka in her post match interview.
It proved to be a straightforward encounter, as she broke twice in the opening set and three times in the second against the under-par Azarenka, who got just one break back.
“I’m so excited I was able to handle a high level from her from the very first point,” Sabalenka said. “I was able to stay with her and it didn’t affect me, so I’m really happy to get this win. It’s so important for me.
“After some of the tough matches I had, I felt less pressure going into the others.
“I was able to play more freely, and I knew I could come back no matter what. Matches like the ones I played this week helped me be more consistent and focused.”
Finding all of the solutions she needed, and instead of blowing hot and cold, Sabalenka began at a high level from the get-go, galloping out of the blocks and staying ahead the whole match.
“I hit a crazy passing shot on the first point, and it was a great start for me,” she beamed.
Commanding the rallies with controlled aggression, she patiently increased the power to build an opportunity to strike an end to the points.
Azarenka found herself unable to get in her customary first strike in or to dictate the emotional tenor of the match as she did in their US Open encounter last month.
The 14th-ranked tried to come back after she received treatment when she was 4-1 down in the second set, breaking Sabalenka, who then replied immediately with her fifth break and served out the match.
“After our US Open match, I sort of knew what to expect coming into this one, that she was going to move me around the court,” Sabalenka said. “It was going to be long rallies, and I was going to have to move really well to win these points.
“I prepared myself well for this match, and it didn’t surprise me.”
Sabalenka kicked off the match with an exciting rally and soon broke at love to grab the final’s first big lead.
Although Azarenka kept the next 2 games close, she was outdone by her fellow Belarusian’s barrage of winners as Sabalenka surged through the opening set with a total of 16 winners to just 8 unforced errors.
She ran off 7 of 8 points to break early in the second set as Azarenka appeared in physical distress, calling a medical timeout.
“I started to feel bad yesterday,” Azarenka said after the match. “I had a really bad migraine and sometimes this happens. That was pretty significant.
“I obviously felt better this morning, but the effect of playing under lights that cause sensitivity, and still recovering from yesterday, it triggered more of the same reaction. It was very unfortunate for me today, but it is what it is.
“I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to make myself feel better. I took it as something like a challenge for myself, and what I could do to perhaps find a solution for the next time.
“I’m proud I was able to at least go through with that.”
Nevertheless, it was a pitch-perfect performance from Sabalenka, who ended the day by winning the doubles title alongside Elise Mertens, and had stamped her authority on the match well before Azarenka showed any sign of distress.
She kept her focus brilliantly as the former World No 1 noticeably flagged in the second set, securing her 7th career title in 68 minutes after putting away a big serve on her 3rd championship point,.
After winning her second title of the year, and with the trophy in hand, Sabalenka thanked Dieter Kindlmann, who she promoted from hitting partner to coach this summer: “What a journey it’s been,” she told him.
Sabalenka’s winning week wasn’t over yet, and with Mertens, Sabalenka eased past Gabriela Dabrowski & Luisa Stefani, 6-1 6-3 to win her 4th doubles title, all with the Belgian.
“Aryna’s really playing well this week, in singles and doubles!” Mertens said after the final. “We played at a consistent level this week, especially in the final.
“She’s the hard-hitter, and I’m the one with the hands! We both give 100% in doubles even if we’re still in the singles, so that’s why we do well.”
“We did well this year, but we hadn’t won a trophy yet,” Sabalenka added. “It was really important to us to win one, and we had such amazing energy together. Hopefully, there’s many more to come!
“We’re young and strong, and we can handle both singles and doubles!”
Sabalenka has dedicated this season to her father, Sergey, who passed away at just 44 last November.
The indoor hard-court event at Ostrava is the last Premier level tournament of the shortened season, and was added to the WTA tour after tournaments in China were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Played without spectator, the event was given the green light to go ahead from Czech health authorities despite sport competitions being banned in this country hard-hit by the coronavirus.