Already an early-season candidate for the WTA’s Most Improved Player award, Timea Babos quickly recognized that her clay court game leaves a lot to be desired when she walked off the court at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix on Monday — awfully lofty standards when considering her record on the surface in 2016 is 1-0, but not so when remembering where she was less than 12 months ago.
“I’m here only with my fitness coach, and he said I didn’t move so well!” she laughed with a group of reporters following a 7-6(4), 6-3 win over Sabine Lisicki in Stuttgart. “Obviously, there’s a place to improve. With the movement, it still needs some adjustment. Although I grew up on clay, and I like clay, so there is no problem, but I need more time to get used to the movement.”
Such is life for Babos in 2016: getting used to a new place in the sport. Her movement on a clay court notwithstanding, it’s been Babos’ ranking movement this season that’s drawn the eyes of many — and her past 12 months have been all about adjustment. In 2015, the Hungarian did not win back-to-back main draw matches at WTA level until April, when she reached her second career final in Marrakech — on clay, no less. From there, however, she lost her next seven matches on the dirt, and her season sputtered from there.
In fact, Babos won consecutive main draw matches at proper WTA level in singles just twice a season ago, as she also reached the quarterfinals in Tianjin before winning the WTA 125 event in Taipei to close out her year. This season couldn’t be more different for the Hungarian No. 1, as she’s won at least two matches in five of eight tournaments she’s played thus far this season, including a semifinal showing in her first event of the year in Shenzhen. Currently ranked No. 40, she’s just one spot off the career-high singles ranking of No. 39 she reached two weeks ago.
“Last year, was interesting because I thought played a lot better than what my results were, and I had to play a lot of qualies in the beginning of the season,” she said. “I played eight tournaments in a row in the qualifying. Everywhere I qualified, I lost, so basically I won twice as many matches as I lost but I didn’t improve my ranking. It was hard to combine with my doubles ranking, which was obviously higher.
“This year, I was looking forward to [clay] more. I had some good results this year, I improved my ranking a lot since the end of the season. I try to have fun, and I think with all the adjustments I still have to do, I think [Monday’s win] was a good start.”
Babos has made her mark in recent years with doubles success, but her championship pedigree in the discipline was evident as early as her junior career. Babos’ stellar 2010 saw her reach a career-high ranking of World No. 2 in juniors and win three consecutive Grand Slams in doubles (Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open) with Sloane Stephens. However, the struggle to balance singles and doubles was also evident; in each of those Grand Slams, Babos failed to advance past the third round. Nonetheless, the Hungarian burst onto the WTA scene as an 18-year-old in 2012, when she defeated No. 3 seed Sorana Cirstea and No. 2 seed Sara Errani en route to winning her first career singles title in Monterrey.
While not the first player to struggle with managing singles and doubles careers that are at different stages, the gulf for Babos was at its widest over the past two seasons. While her singles ranking languished around the lower echelons of the top 100 — she ended 2014 at No. 99 and 2015 at No. 88 — her doubles ranking soared. She finished 2014 just outside the world’s top 20 at No. 21 after claiming two titles with different partners, and then reaching the Wimbledon final with a third, Kristina Mladenovic. In 2015, she and Mladenovic added three more titles to their career haul, and Babos peaked at a high of No. 8 in the doubles rankings before ending the season at No. 11.
With Mladenovic electing to partner with Caroline Garcia with the Rio Olympics looming 2016, and the next-highest ranked Hungarian, Reka-Luca Jani, ranked outside the world’s top 250, Babos’ decision to focus on her singles game might’ve been made for her — if she wasn’t so focused on dedicating herself to the change anyway.
“I think it’s the past two years,” she said, when reflecting on how she’s gotten to this point in 2016. “In 2014, around Indian Wells, I changed [my] coach and then also [my] fitness coach. We’ve been working very hard especially on my tennis part, but of course my physic [sic] combination.
“It’s not easy to make another step when you’re, like, No. 10 in doubles and No. 80 in singles, because so many times I wanted to play different tournaments for my singles, but I had goals also for doubles,” she said. “This year, what I changed is that I wanted to put more focus on singles, and I said that doubles will be a little bit behind.”
Whatever the combination of factors may be, it’s been a blessing in disguise for Babos, who’s soared to new heights this season. While her general playing style on court isn’t all that complicated — she relies on a booming serve, a strong two-handed backhand and an aggressive mindset from the baseline — Babos’ tennis has seemed all the more effective in 2016. She currently ranks third on the WTA in aces, behind Serena Williams and Karolina Pliskova, and in the top 10 in three-set matches won, a testament to her improved fitness.
“In the offseason, we tried to focus on more basic things, like my biggest weapons. [We wanted to] work on them to make my weapons stronger, and then if they’re good enough, my weaker spots could be a little bit more hidden.”
“I think I work a lot in general — I’m known for this on tour, that I am always on court [and] I practice a lot. This is one part, and the other side is that I enjoy a lot better and I handle the pressure a lot better. I started to work with a new psychologist team in November, and they also helped me a lot. Everything is getting together; I’m getting more mature also — I guess, it’s a combination of everything.”
Babos turns 23 in May, and although it feels as though a lifetime has passed since her WTA debut in 2010, she still has the majority of her career still ahead of her. While she’s closed the gap some between herself and the WTA’s elite over the past year, she’ll face a tough test in World No. 4 Garbiñe Muguruza in the second round; Muguruza won the pair’s first meeting in Doha this season in straight sets, but if Babos’ early-season renaissance is anything to go by, expect her to make plenty of adjustments ahead of — and even during — their mid-week meeting.