Ash Barty came out on top of the much-anticipated clash between two Roland Garros champions, and loved every second of the challenge set by Iga Swiatek in the Mutua Madrid Open on Monday.
I really enjoyed myself out there tonight, I enjoyed the challenge. Iga's game is exceptional. It's really, really impressive. I loved testing myself and trying to figure out the puzzle tonight, and the challenges that she created for me. Ash Barty
“I love the way that she plays,” Barty said, with typical appreciation. “I love the way she takes the game on. She plays without fear.
“I think the way she controls the court, has the ability to move and neutralise from defensive position is very, very impressive.”
It was the first meeting between the two, who have contrasting styles and tons of grit, Barty the all-court magician and Swiatek with her athletic baseline power play.
Both came into the match on hot streaks, Barty with 13 consecutive wins on red clay stretching back to her maiden Grand Slam victory in Paris in 2019, while Swiatek had won 18 consecutive sets on the surface since her own triumph there last October.
It took the Australian an hour and 40 minutes to figure her way past the talented Pole, 7-5 6-4, in a fascinating match of both remarkable skill and will power.
“I think, probably, the first half an hour was a bit of an adjustment period for both of us,” Barty said. “I think it took me some time to get used to Iga’s weight of shot.
“Obviously, we had a game plan going into it, but I had to adjust that, and had to, kind of, learn on the fly a little bit.
“It took me some time to get used to that and kind of nut down what I really wanted to do out there.
“Once I was able to do that, I became a lot more clear and was able to control the match a little bit more, the way that I wanted to.”
Swiatek flew out of the blocks to go 3-0 up, and threatened Barty’s serve again before the Aussie managed her first hold to get on the scoreboard, and then she relaxed into her task.
Despite the tight contest, Barty was not broken again and didn’t face another break point for the duration of the opener, nor as she rallied from a 0-40 deficit to hold for 4-2 in the second after having broken Swiatek in the 3rd game.
“[That was] a massive game in a sense of continuing to build pressure on Iga,” she said. “I think that was a big part of it.
“A lot of my service games I felt like I was building pressure on her service games by being able to get out of some tight ones. I think that was a massive game to continue the momentum.
“If I’d have lost that game, it’s certainly no panic stations. It still would have been 2-All, 3-All, whatever the score would have been.
“I think it was a really important game just to be able to go back to what was working for me.”
Although she landed just 56 percent of her first serves in the match, Barty won nearly 80 percent of the points played behind it, and she cleaned up her serve in the second set by raising her first-serve percentage from 46 to 65 percent.
She saved 6 of the 7 break points she faced, and converted all 3 of her own, and while she fired just 6 aces, each came at crucial times, seemingly finding one for every big point when needed.
By way of contrast, Swiatek tightened up on her serve, making just 46 percent of her first serves and double-faulting 6 times, 3 of them when she was broken in the match’s most crucial game, at 5-5 in the first set.
The 19-year old also seemed unable to anticipate Barty’s serve up the T from the ad court, and although she ended up with more winners, 22 to 20, she was undone by those double-fault offerings.
When she finally did find her first serve ,and made it through an easy hold late in the second set, she raised her hands in a mock victory celebration.
Mostly, Barty got the first strike in with her forehand more often than not, especially on the important points.
Serving at 6-5 in the first set, Barty went down 15-30 before hitting 2 forehand winners, and then, serving for the match at 5-4 in the second, she started with another forehand winner and closed it out with 2 un-returnable deliveries.
“I really enjoyed myself out there tonight, I enjoyed the challenge,” said Barty. “Iga’s game is exceptional. It’s really, really impressive.
“I loved testing myself and trying to figure out the puzzle tonight, and the challenges that she created for me.”
Earlier, Petra Kvitova passed a formidable test of her own, posed by in-form Veronika Kudermetova, 6-3 4-6 6-4, to book an all-star quarter-final against the World No 1.
The Czech, who has won Madrid 3 times and is seeded 9th here, recovered from a second-set glitch to overcome the surging Russian in just over 2 hours on Manolo Santana Stadium.
“Definitely it was a tough one,” admitted Kvitova afterwards. “It was about serving a lot.
“It was just the one break in each set. I’m really glad I managed most of it mentally.
“Veronika was really on fire. Since she won Charleston, she really plays great. She will be a big champion.
“The whole match I was not relaxed, but calm, I would say. That’s how I managed to bring the win.”
The 2-time Wimbledon champion was clearly ready for a battle as she raced through the first 3 games and ultimately swept up the first set with 12 winners.
The second proved tougher, particularly when it came to breaking Kudermetova, who trails only Barty among 2021’s Ace Leaders.
Saving a break point in the 3rd game, the Russian fended off 2 more in the crucial 9th, one that would have helped Kvitova serve for the match, but Kudermetova capitalised on a pair of forehand errors to turn the tables and level the match.
On the brink of losing a 4th straight game, Kvitova stepped up to save a break point of her own, and reclaimed the momentum to win the next 3 games.
She continued to hold on, even as Kudermetova threatened to level the decider with 2 more break chances, and held off one last stand to reverse a 0-30 deficit in the final game to secure her spot in the last eight.
In a match that came down to razor-thin margins, Kvitova largely cancelled out 34 unforced errors with 29 winners and and created more openings on return, converting 2 of 7 break chances to Kudermetova’s 1 of 4.
Up next, she faces Barty, whom she leads 5-4 in their head-to-head after winning their most recent meeting at the 2020 Qatar Total Open.
“We played on clay, but it was many, many years ago so I’m not counting then,” Kvitova said. “She has a game for clay.
“She’s sliding. She’s playing lots of slice and everything… She likes clay a little bit more than me probably. I like Madrid. So who knows, right?
“Always playing Ash, it’s great challenge. It will be great matchup. I really will enjoy it. I’m really looking forward for it.”
As for Barty, she is looking ahead too: “I love to play Petra. I do. She brings out the best in me.
“I just said to Tyz that we’re going to be counting in Roman numerals the amount of times we’ve played.
“It’s another challenge, another test. She’s won this tournament multiple times, loves the conditions here. A fresh challenge for me.”
Elsewhere, Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic moved into the last eight after a right thigh injury forced Ons Jabeur from Tunisia to retire, trailing 7-6(2) 4-3.
Bencic will now face meet Spanish hope Paulo Badosa, after the wild card topped Latvian qualifier Anastasija Sevastova, 6-7 7-6(3) 6-0, in a match that lasted over two-and-a-half hours.
Saving 2 break points in the first game of the decider, the 23-year-old Spaniard cruised through to the finish amidst emotional scenes.
“I got so emotional after the match because of that, of playing home and showing the people the level and that I can win matches,” she said. “I’m the last Spanish player here, so it makes me a little bit more proud.
“I know the crowd are pushing me a lot.
“The first two sets were very close,” Badosa added. “It could go through one side or another one.
“But then the third set I knew I had to play very aggressive because I was quite tired. I was feeling a little bit with my legs super tight. I was having a little bit of problems with that.
“But I was going from, like, less to more in the match. I was feeling I was playing better in the third set.
“I started to be very, very aggressive, concentrated on the first two, three shots. I think that was a little bit the key of the third set.”