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
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