Sa­balenka plans to si­lence the crit­ics at Open

Ridiculed for her grunt­ing in 2018, the Be­larus­sian tells Si­mon Briggs how she will win over the crowd

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Tennis -

In 2012 and 2013, the Aus­tralian Open was won by Vic­to­ria Azarenka, a feisty Be­larus­sian whose ex­ag­ger­ated grunt in­spired mock­ing imi­ta­tions from the stands. This year, many pun­dits are pre­dict­ing that his­tory will re­peat it­self. The only de­tail that has changed is the name.

“I try to im­prove dur­ing this tour­na­ment, es­pe­cially for the fans,” says Aryna Sa­balenka, when asked about the shrieks that caused a mi­nor con­tro­versy here in Mel­bourne 12 months ago. “I re­ally want them to en­joy my game; don’t want them to be sit­ting there putting their earplugs in.”

Sa­balenka – who, like Azarenka, was born in Minsk – bombed out in the first round here last year, but not be­fore con­test­ing an ill-tem­pered three-set­ter with home favourite Ash­leigh Barty. The par­ti­san crowd on Rod Laver Arena soon be­gan im­i­tat­ing her screams, while the for­mer dou­bles great Todd Wood­bridge posted a crit­i­cal com­ment on his Twit­ter page: “Some­thing needs to be done about her noise and grunt­ing on court.”

But Sa­balenka – who is only 20 – says that she can­not help her­self. “At some tour­na­ments, they spoke to me like, ‘You need to be more quiet.’ But, well, you don’t re­ally con­trol that. I don’t know how it hap­pened, ac­tu­ally [that she be­came a grunter]. Some­times I can stop scream­ing at all. Some­times I scream like a crazy [per­son]. I am so sorry to the peo­ple who don’t re­ally like it.”

When asked about the hos­tile mimicry that she en­coun­tered on Rod Laver Arena last year, Sa­balenka replies: “I re­mem­ber this sit­u­a­tion, It was the first time I saw that, and I was like, ‘Re­ally? Guys, come on, you can­not do that!’ They were drink­ing the beer, and they weren’t nice to me, and I was so dis­ap­pointed. I was like, ‘Next year I will come back and all of you will sup­port me 100 per cent.’ So we will see this year if I am right.”

De­spite her sta­tus as a noise pol­luter, Sa­balenka was hu­mor­ous and en­gag­ing through­out our 25-minute in­ter­view. Re­fined, too. Af­ter us­ing the “S” word at one point, she yelped an apol­ogy and then put her hand del­i­cately over her mouth like some­thing out of Enid Bly­ton.

In the past six months, Sa­balenka has come rock­et­ing – some might say scream­ing – up the rank­ings. Dur­ing that time, only the US Open cham­pion, Naomi Osaka – a near con­tem­po­rary who is seen as her most ob­vi­ous fu­ture ri­val – has col­lected more points.

“She’s the one that we need to watch for this year,” said the ESPN pun­dit Chris Evert last week. “I see hunger and I see bold­ness. Like this girl wants it. You can see it in her eyes. She’s pretty in­tense.”

The daugh­ter of an auto-me­chanic who played a bit of ice hockey, Sa­balenka hardly comes from a gilded back­ground. For­tu­nately, her train­ing costs have been spon­sored by a Be­larus­sian oli­garch – Alexan­der Shakutin – since she was a teenager.

Even so, Sa­balenka says she was never seen as any­thing spe­cial by her lo­cal coaches. “In Be­larus there were only a few peo­ple who be­lieved in me. They thought I was stupid, that I had no chance to play at this level. And now they’re all nice to me! I don’t re­ally want to speak to them, be­cause I know what they were say­ing about me.

“I need to be thank­ful to them, be­cause that mo­ti­vated me to work even harder and to show them, ‘Guys, you’re not right. You need to stop talk­ing about play­ers be­cause you don’t re­ally un­der­stand about ten­nis.’”

Feisti­ness runs in the Minsk wa­ter, we can as­sume, to­gether with a pen­chant for noisy self-ex­pres­sion. Charm­ing though she might be, Sa­balenka has a tem­per that has made her a noted racket-smasher. Thus far, she has never jus­ti­fied this habit in the man­ner of her coach – for­mer world No20 Dmitry Tur­sunov – who once told an in­ter­viewer: “When the racket breaks, it feels al­most or­gas­mic.” While play­ing the China Open in Bei­jing last year, her im­pa­tience got the bet­ter of her in a dif­fer­ent way. The cam­eras caught her wav­ing an empty wa­ter bot­tle at a ball boy dur­ing a changeover, and then drop­ping it dis­mis­sively on the court when he didn’t re­spond quickly enough.

“On Twit­ter, I saw a lot of haters,” she says. “I have been so dis­ap­pointed, be­cause they don’t re­ally un­der­stand that you can lose your mind on the court, and you’re not re­ally that bad kind of per­son. It’s like, you lose it, and then you’re re­ally sorry to the guy

– but there’s no time to be sorry, you’re just fo­cused on your game. Hope­fully he is not re­ally p----d with that.”

Given that both women still live in Minsk, we can as­sume that Sa­balenka must have come across Azarenka at some stage. But when the sub­ject is raised, she folds her arms, and the tem­per­a­ture in the room drops no­tice­ably. “Yeah, for sure, she is a big star,” said Sa­balenka offhand­edly. “She won grand slam, so she is fa­mous there.”

So didn’t Azarenka, who is nine years older, pro­vide a role model when she was grow­ing up? “No. I was look­ing more at Ser­ena [Wil­liams] and Maria [Shara­pova] prob­a­bly, but it wasn’t like I was a big fan of theirs.

“My dad told me a story. When I was maybe 12, a friend of his came to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re a fu­ture Shara­pova.’ I was so an­gry. I said, ‘I’m a fu­ture Sa­balenka, not a fu­ture Shara­pova.’”

In the zone: Aryna Sa­balenka says she can be a dif­fer­ent per­son when on court

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