LONDON (Reuters) – Aryna Sabalenka wears a tiger tattoo on her left forearm and packs a fearsome punch with a mighty serve but until this week the world number two has played more like a kitten at the Grand Slam events.
On Tuesday, however, the 23-year-old Belarusian bared her claws in ferocious fashion to power past Tunisian Ons Jabeur 6-4 6-3 and reach the semi-finals at Wimbledon.
Despite being the second seed, few would have batted an eyelid had Sabalenka joined the exodus of the big names in the first week of the tournament.
After all, despite an impressive 10 career WTA titles, she had never got past the second round at Wimbledon and her deepest runs at a Grand Slam were to the fourth round at the 2018 U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open.
Entering this year’s Wimbledon she was the only top-20 seed yet to reach a major quarter-final, but something appears to have clicked and finally she has harnessed her natural power and athleticism with greater self-belief.
“I was struggling on the Grand Slams with all emotions going through. After every slam I was so disappointed about myself that I can’t handle this pressure,” she told reporters, after setting up a clash with fellow big-hitter Karolina Pliskova.
“I actually thought that I will never make it to the second week. “We worked a lot with my psychologist and with my coach.”
Asked what was getting her through the pressure moments this week, she said it was simple.
“Just breathe. Keep fighting. Keep doing everything you can. That’s it. Actually, that’s it.”
Growing up in Minsk, grass is hardly a natural surface for Sabalenka. Tunisian Jabeur was exactly the kind of tricky player to exploit any mental doubts, but apart from some clumsy errors on a couple of set points in the 10th game of the first set, Sabalenka was dominant as her firepower held sway.
“I just enjoy everything on this surface. It’s actually tough to play on the grass, but I really enjoy every second on the court. It’s about everything: about serving, about returning, about moving, about everything actually,” she said.
Tennis can be such a mentally demanding sport and over-thinking can be a dream killer. For Sabalenka, just channelling the inner tiger, turning the power dial up to 10 and thumping forehands and backhands, might just be the best policy.
“Since I start playing tennis, I was just working, just enjoying, just fighting, just hitting the ball so hard. I wasn’t really thinking about being on this level,” she said.
“Today it surprised me but I didn’t feel that pressure of being in the quarter-final for the first time.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)