Aryna Sabalenka Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

Dubai: Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka has vouched to hold her own heading into an undecided new tennis season starting with this week’s Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open at the Zayed Sports City’s International Tennis Centre.

The World No. 10 finished 2020 on a nine-match winning streak, winning back-to-back titles in Ostrava, where she beat Victoria Azarenka in the final and Linz where she defeated Elise Mertens in the final to finish in the Top 10 for the first time in her young career.

The 22-year-old had found good success in the first week of the season, having captured the title in Shenzhen in 2019.

In the season-opening Abu Dhabi WTA 500, the No. 4 seed has been drawn into the tough top half of the draw where she opens against Slovenia’s Polona Hercog — the first meeting between the two since 2018 — and could face No. 15 seed Ons Jabeur in the Round of 16.

Elena Rybakina, who has been training in Dubai since the past two months and who led the Tour with six finals in 2020, also lurks in Sabalenka’s quarter.

“I’ve had a good preseason, and after the preseason I needed some time to get into my rhythm. Besides, I like to play in this region as it’s cold back home. I love playing in Doha and in Dubai as well,” she explained.

The girl from Belarus ended last season with two straight titles to finish her best year on a high note. But the irony of being inside doing nothing has brought forth its lessons too. “Every day is a new day and in tennis no success is assured,” Sabalenka said.

“I feel I can continue what I did last year and perhaps even go better than that,” she added.

After her preseason preparations, Sabalenka took just a week off before travelling to Abu Dhabi. “I didn’t want to spend too much time doing nothing. During the pandemic break it was just about waiting for the tournaments to start and that felt a bit weird,” she recalled.

“Honestly, heading into this new year I don’t think I have any expectations as last year showed us that everything can change in one second. I just want to make sure I am 100 per cent on things every day while enjoying the present,” Sabalenka stressed.

“Of course, game-wise I need to find consistency in my play and be calm and professional about everything that concerns tennis and life. Perhaps, before I had a lot of expectations, but this year it’s different and I want to focus only on what I am doing on court. Every day I find something new and I hope through this I will keep finding something new each time,” she added.

Sabalenka has a tiger tattoo on her left arm. This tattoo has earned her the nickname ‘The Tiger’, which she has used to refer to herself.

She won her first Grand Slam title in doubles at the 2019 US Open alongside Elise Mertens with whom she will be training during her time in Melbourne in the build-up to the Australian Open later this month.

Sabalenka was unheralded as a junior and relatively unknown until 2017 when she rose to prominence by leading the Belarus Fed Cup team to a runner-up finish with Aliaksandra Sasnovich, despite both of them being ranked outside the top-75 at that time.

Following the 2017 Fed Cup, she began having more success on the WTA Tour, reaching four finals in 2018 to go along with eight top-10 victories. Sabalenka continued to excel in singles in 2019 with three titles in China, highlighted by a defence of her Wuhan Open and by winning the WTA Elite Trophy at the end of the year.

“The current situation [surrounding COVID-19] does not bother me at all. I am just following the schedule and honestly, we all just need to adjust our lives,” she observed.

“That means do everything within one’s control to stay safe. The change in routine is a great challenge for all of us as professional tennis players. We are all together in this, and there is a huge support from everyone and this makes me really happy and safe,” Sabalenka added.