Sabalenka embracing top seed status at WTA Finals

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Aryna Sabalenka says the thin air in Guadalajara has made controlling her shots more challenging ahead of the WTA Tour Finals this week (AFP/MATTHEW STOCKMAN)

Aryna Sabalenka says she is relishing her top seed status at this week's WTA Tour Finals even if she is still getting to grips with the challenging tournament conditions at altitude in Guadalajara.

The Belarusian star Sabalenka heads a depleted field at the season-ending tournament, which was moved to Mexico from its usual home in Shenzhen, China due to the pandemic.

The switch in venue means the tournament's eight finalists must adjust to the thin air of Guadalajara, which is around 5,100 feet (1,550 metres) above sea level, as they vie for the final title of 2021.

The 23-year-old Sabalenka, who notched wins in Abu Dhabi and Madrid this year and reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, said she had struggled to control the ball during her initial practice sessions in Guadalajara.

"Well, first day I arrived here, I mean, I wasn't surprised but I was shocked that I cannot control anything," Sabalenka said Tuesday.

"I was playing around the strings a little bit, found the perfect tension. I think with every day I feel better and better.

"I have another day because I start to play Thursday so I feel much better right now with the altitude and with the conditions here. Hopefully I'll be able to show my best on the first match," she said.

Sabalenka, who opens her campaign against Spanish seventh seed Paula Padosa on Thursday, said she is unfazed by the pressure that comes with her top seed status.

"I think I'm doing well with the pressure," she said.

"I'm really happy to be here, especially top seeded. I couldn't imagine one day I will be top seeded on the WTA Finals. For me this is something amazing and unbelievable."

Sabalenka's final weeks of the season were jolted after she tested positive for Covid-19, forcing her to withdraw from Indian Wells.

"For four days I was really sick, I couldn't move," Sabalenka said.

"I didn't have taste, I didn't have smell. Wasn't really an amazing time."

The eight finalists in Guadalajara have been split into two groups of four, with the top two finishers in each group advancing to the semi-finals.

Sabalenka plays Greece's Maria Sakkari, Poland's Iga Swiatek and Spain's Badosa in the group stage.

The other side of the draw sees Czechs Barbora Krejcikova and Karolina Pliskova grouped with Spain's Garbine Muguruza and Estonia's Anett Kontaveit.

Pliskova revealed Tuesday she has is also having to make rapid adjustments due to playing at altitude.

"You feel a bit heavier breathing," the third seed said. "The balls are bouncing quite high. That has been something I was struggling with a bit this week."

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