Coach Talks: Dmitry Tursunov on Aryna Sabalenka, doughnuts, poker and truly wining
By James Henry
(August 18, 2019) CINCINNATI — You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’, when the dealin’s done.
Famously sung by American country musician Kenny Rogers, that sentiment applies to gambling, to life, and even to tennis.
Players must learn and appreciate the process, said Dmitry Tursunov, who reached as high as World No. 20 during a professional competitive career that ended in 2017.
He now is coaching Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and working to help the 2018 WTA Newcomer of the Year recognize when to be serious and, just as importantly, when to have fun.
Currently No. 9, Sabalenka is steadily climbing upward. The 21-year-old broke through in 2018 with titles in Wuhan and New Haven and early this year made a successful title run in Shenzhen.
“She’s a little bit intense on the court. I think she’s a litt
le too intense. She wants to do well. She wants to improve. So, a lot of times she, I think, needs to maybe take it a little bit easier,” the coach said.
“There’s quite a few players that, I think, could benefit from just relaxing a little bit and understanding that there are certain things that you have to control and there are certain things that are out of your control. So, if you stress over them, you really wouldn’t make any difference.
“In general, she’s very easy. She’s a very giggly and bubbly person. So, I think, in that sense, she’s very good. But once she’s on the court, I think, a lot of times the emotions take over, and the desire to do well every single time — and it’s impossible to do that.”
Tursunov shared his top five tennis tips at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where Sabalenka reached the third round:
1. Learn when to apply that extra effort and when to relax.
“It’s like, this is the time when you really need to buckle up and just dig deep and try to fight every single point,” Tursunov said.
He stressed there is a difference between hitting nonstop “balls to the wall” winners and, instead, constructing points and giving opponents an opportunity to miss their shots.
“It sounds very easy, like, oh, why don’t you just construct the point better? But it takes a little bit of time to understand those concepts,” he said.
“It sounds like a very simple concept, but once you’re on the court, once you’re under emotions, then you really start losing kind of perspective of, OK, is this a good shot for me to go for, or is this not a good shot, and then understanding the percentages on the fly is a very hard thing to do.
“It’s kind of like poker, you know; 2-7 is a really bad hand, but you see a lot of people, like, a lot of newbies, bluff on it and go all in and they win because a more experienced player is like, OK, you know what, you can have this one. But then once you start calculating the averages.
“It’s the same thing in tennis, you know. It’s hard to calculate averages on the fly. So, you need to have a little bit of experience and discipline and, you know, learn how to control your emotions, so that you can kind of see those things and opportunities in a little bit more clearer picture.”
2. Tennis players need to buy into what their coach says.
“The player has to be on board. I’ve gone through the same thing where I had a really good coach, but I just wasn’t ready for the information. So, I think, as a player, you have to grow up to that point where you’re willing to let some information in,” Tursunov said.
“It’s not extremely secretive information. If you learn the trade or if you hang around tennis long enough, and if you like to improve, then you pick up on that information.”
“The main question is if the player’s actually receptive to it,” he added. “A lot of times, it’s important on the delivery. Sometimes you can say the same thing as the next guy, but the next guy can just have a little twist to it and all of a sudden that clicks.
“A lot of times you say the same thing 10 times, 40 times, and then someone else comes in and says exactly the same thing in exactly the same way and all of a sudden it clicks because it’s another opinion.”
“It’s a little bit tricky. I wish it was all up to me because then at least I know who to blame for the loss,” he laughed.
Dialogue between the player and the coach is crucial.
“The communication has to be very good from both sides, not only from my side to her, but also from her to me, because if I don’t know what I’m dealing with, it’s going to be very hard to help,” Tursunov emphasized.
3. Don’t focus solely on only winning.
Tursunov, in particular, wants Sabalenka to feel encouraged by good play, even if she loses the point, game, or perhaps match.
“I think she’s very hung up on the result part of it. She can play a great point and get too upset because she didn’t win it. That sort of cancels all the hard work that she did,” he said.
“I would love for her to focus a little bit more kind of on the process, say, OK, the process was good, I’ve done everything well, I lost the point, but this is the way to play the point.
“I think it has a little bit to do with maturity, as well. I’m not saying she is immature, but you have to have a certain amount of bad experiences and good experience to really start kind of understating, OK, when I do it this way, that’s the result I’m going to get; when I do it that way, that is the result that I’m going to get.
“I think that’s a very big thing, for her, because everything else ties into that. If she closes her mind off, if she gets a bad result, or if she losses the point, then it’s hard to work from that point on.
“But if she’s a little bit more open-minded and willing to take some losses and willing to take some kind of lost points and maybe make some mistakes along the way of improving, then she is going to improve much more rapidly.”
4. Understand, it’s a grind. All winning streaks eventually end.
“It’s kind of like the first day at work, you know, everything is great and you’re willing to, you know, bring coffee for everybody and like, oh, here’s some doughnuts, hey, high-five for everyone. But on the third or fourth day, you’re like, oh, leave me alone, I don’t want to do this, or this,” Tursunov said.
“It has to do with the patience. It has to do with trust,” he continued. “You can’t force the result. Just because you want to win, you’re not going to win more. You have to actually take the right steps to do that.
“You can want to be No. 1 in the world, but if you don’t do the work, or if you don’t do certain things, it’s going to come out in the match.”
Yes, it’s not how you fall. It truly is how you get back up.
“There’s not a single player who just went up and just stayed up there. They have to come down. They have to, you know, take some losses, some hard losses, and they have to maybe drop in rankings, maybe they have to have something drastic happen to them, so that they can see, OK, hey, you know what, I’m not immune to losses,” Tursunov said.
“A lot of players go up, they start feeling, like, oh, that’s it, I’ve made it, I’ve got everything under control. You know, who’s this guy yapping in my ear? You know, warm up? I don’t need a warm up. I’m already warmed up.
“So, that needs to happen. And then the person sort of finds their way. As a player, you have to go through that journey, as well. You have to have some highs. You have to have some lows.
“Hopefully, the low is not going to be as low as it potentially can be. And, hopefully, the highs don’t really get to the head of the player.”
“Every single person goes through it,” he noted.
5. While it is good to have expectations, they must be realistic.
“You can’t live in bubble and think that no one is ever going to beat you anymore,” Tursunov said. “Serena Williams is dealing with that a lot of times. You know, she’s won so many Grand Slams. How does she motivate herself to come out and play the first round in, you know, a 250 or a Premier, because it, obviously, doesn’t mean as much as the finals of a Slam.
“But in order to get to the finals you have to take those steps and you have to win those first-round matches.”
Those goals also must be healthy — physically, but especially mentally.
“When you’re winning, you start feeling kind of invincible and it lasts for a certain period, but then there’s a period of where you just become reckless and careless and that’s where you potentially can drop off the cliff and get a really painful loss,” Tursunov said.
“Having to fall down a few times, you learn, OK, falling down hurts, how do I prevent myself from doing that again?
“One thing that I really like that someone said, you don’t deserve to win a Slam until you lose in a final. It really, I think, crystallizes that you really have to learn some hard lessons to deserve to win a big event.”