Madrid | It’s a Swiatek versus Sabalenka final

The World Nos 1 and 2, Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka, will contest the championship match at the Mutua Madrid Open on Saturday in a repeat of last year’s WTA 1000 final in Spain’s capital city.

I feel really good. I wasn't really thinking about what happened last year. But repeating this result is a great thing. I'll have a chance to play a nice match in two days. So it's really exciting. I'm happy overall with the whole tournament. Iga Świątek

Last year, Sabalenka lifted the trophy for a second time after a 3-6 6-3 3-6 win over Swiatek, and the 22-year old Pole, who is looking to take her run in Madrid one win further, has dropped just one set in reaching the final this year, while the Belarusian has struggled but prevailed in her 5 matches, 4 of which went the distance.

In the early semi-final, Swiatek dismantled Madison Keys, 6-1 6-3 in just 70 minutes, while Sabalenka, playing the night match, had to fight her way back from a set down again to edge past in-form World No 4, Elena Rybakina, 1-6 7-5 7-6(5), after a 2 hour 17 minute battle.

Swiatek reached her 3rd final of the year and moved a step closer to her 3rd WTA 1000 title of 2024, having picked up the trophies at WTA 1000 events in Doha and Indian Wells.

“It was a pretty clean performance, and really solid game from myself,” Swiatek said afterwards. “I’m happy with everything.”

Keys was hoping to extend her successful run in Madrid, having already notched two Top 10 wins over Coco Gauff and Ons Jabeur in the previous rounds, but Swiatek took command early on Thursday, and never let up, saving all 3 of the break points she faced, and winning 64% returning the American 18th seed’s second serve, leading to a 4-for-5 break point conversion rate.

Swiatek was swift out of the blocks, racing to a 3-0 lead, before Keys came close to pulling back on serve, blasting 3 fiery forehands in a row to reach double break point at 3-1, but the Pole produced 2 of her best serves of the day to fend off the threat, and gritted out a tough hold for 4-1.

From there, Swiatek was unchallenged in the opener as she eased to the one-set lead, and the second progressed in a similar vein, with the top seed moving ahead to an early break by carving a passing winner to lead 2-1.

While Keys held another break point to pull back on serve in the next game, Swiatek survived it and retained her advantage.

At 5-3, a huge forehand service return gave Swiatek triple match point, and the World No 1 only needed one of them to reach the final, after Keys sent a forehand long to end the encounter.

Swiatek improved to 3-1 against Keys in their head-to-head, and collected her 29th win of the season, with only Rybakina having more at 30.

Madison Keys' run in Madrid was halted by Iga Swiatek, but has boosted her hopes of making the Olympic Games in Paris

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

“I feel really good,” Swiatek said. “I wasn’t really thinking about what happened last year. But repeating this result is a great thing.

“I’ll have a chance to play a nice match in two days. So it’s really exciting. I’m happy overall with the whole tournament.”

Swiatek, a 4-times Grand Slam champion, is now the youngest player to reach 10 WTA level finals on clay since Swiss Martina Hingis in 2000.

There will be a rematch in this year’s final after 2nd-seeded Sabalenka squeaked past Rybakina in Thursday’s second semi-final.

“I’m happy that we can play a final against the top players,” Swiatek said ahead of the later semi-final. “It shows consistency. For sure it’s going to be a challenge, whoever it’s gonna be, and a tough match. I will be ready. I will focus on myself. Yeah, we’ll see.”

For Keys, her run to the semi-finals has boosted her Olympic hopes, having posted significant wins over Coco Gauff and Ons Jabeur along the way, and placing her ahead of her compatriot, Emma Navarro.

Under ITF and Olympic rules, only 4 players per nation can compete in each singles draw at the Olympic Games, and the cut-off for Olympic tennis action is on 10 June, immediately after the conclusion of the French Open.

Most players inside the top 50 are ensured a place at the Olympics should they wish to compete and have represented their nation at the Billie Jean King Cup enough times, but for nations with the strength and depth of the US, it becomes a little more complicated.

US No 1 Coco Gauff and No 2 Jessica Pegula are safely inside the top 10 of the WTA Rankings, and are effectively guaranteed an Olympic spot should they want it, which it appears they do.

After being ranked outside the top 50 earlier in the season, Danielle Collins’ surge to the Miami and Charleston titles see her ranked safely inside the Top 20, which should also all but guarantee her a place in the Paris 2024 squad, which leaves Keys and Navarro battling for the last spot.

Aryna Sabalenka came from a set and breaks down to beat Elena Rybakina in the match tiebreak in the Madrid semi-finals

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

On Thursday night, it looked to be Rybakina on course for an easy win over Sabalenka after taking the first set for the loss of just one game.

Up 2-1, Rybakina unloaded a forehand on the run to create 15-30, prompting Sabalenka to double-fault for the second time in the game, perhaps feeling the weight of the consistent deep strikes coming her way.

The Kazakh broke by stretching Sabalenka to each corner of the court, before saving a break point and consolidating, and then closed out a 5-game run with a love hold.

While Sabalenka held to open set two, she found herself in the same position after 3 games, and was down a break, but the Belarusian didn’t go away quietly, eventually getting herself back on even terms with a booming backhand winner.

When the 2022 Wimbledon champion served for the match, the Kazakh faltered, sending a mid-court forehand wide and then, on break point, pushing a tired backhand long to give the 2nd seed a reprieve.

Rybakina was just 2 points from closing out another comprehensive win, when she framed that sitting forehand.

“It was just a regular ball. I think that I choose the correct angle and everything,” Rybakina later told the press. “It’s just I went for too much and it went wide.”

The miss proved to be match-changing, and it was all the Belarusian needed to turn the tide, as she held on to force an unlikely decider, and, having made just 3 winners in the first set, Sabalenka clocked 16 in the second.

“I was struggling a lot on my serve in the first set, and definitely, kind of, easy games on my serve gave me a bit more belief that I still got some chances in this match,” Sabalenka said later.

Elena Rybakina was 2 points from winning against Aryna Sabalenka in the Last 4 but blew it

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The third set rolled with the server through the first 10 games before Rybakina broke through to earn the first break points of the set, but Sabalenka wiped both chances away, and then, with her 4th ace of the match and a line-clipping forehand winner, the Belarusian held to lead 6-5.

After dodging Rybakina’s final surge, Sabalenka raced through the tiebreak to seal the win, and finished the big-hitting match with 35 winners to 29 unforced errors, while Rybakina struck 31 winners to her 23 miscues.

“For me, it works better when I go for my shots and when I risk sometimes,” observed Sabalenka.

The win notably saw Sabalenka halt Rybakina’s 16-match win streak on clay courts, and set up a 2023 final rematch with top-ranked Swiatek.

Sabalenka is into the Madrid final for a 3rd time, while Swiatek is looking to land the only high-profile European clay competition that she has yet to win.

“It’s definitely going to be a great battle. We’re always fighting as hard as we can,” Sabalenka said. “It’s always incredible matches.

“I’m really looking forward to this final. I’m gonna do everything I can to get this win.”

Speaking at a press conference before her final match against Sabalenka, Swiatek talked about her consistency.

“In most of these matches you can see the result, but there is a lot beyond that to work on,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it was easy because, at the beginning, I didn’t have much time to adapt to the conditions, and that’s what I had to do during the tournament.

“But, overall, my matches have been pretty good, playing efficiently. So I am happy to be able to play like this and to be fresh, even before the final.

Swiatek also revealed that she does have random thoughts and doubts when her performance falters.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t have random thoughts,” she said. “I have them, but the question is what are you going to do with them. I wouldn’t say my approach is constant always because some days are better and some days are worse, but even if with a little bit worse, I know I can still play good tennis and win.”

Aryna Sabalenka (L) and Iga Swiatek, seen here ahead of 2023 Madrid final, will line up again on Saturday to contest for WTA 1000 honours

© Julian Finney/Getty Images

Swiatek and Sabalenka have faced each other 9 times on the WTA Tour, with the World No 1 emerging victorious in 6 of those match-ups.

Their first encounter took place at the 2021 WTA Finals, where Sabalenka secured a hard-fought victory with a score of 2-6 6-2 7-5, but Swiatek went on to win the next 4 meetings between them, at the 2022 Qatar Open, the 2022 Stuttgart Open, the 2022 Italian Open, and the 2022 US Open.

They next met at the semi-finals of the 2022 WTA Finals, where Sabalenka managed to defeat the Pole in a thrilling match, 6-2 2-6 6-1.

Last year, they met 3 times, first at the final of the Stuttgart Open, which Swiatek won, and then in the final of Madrid Open, which Sabalenka won.

Their most recent came in the semi-finals of the 2023 WTA Finals, where the World No 1 once again triumphed, 6-3 6-2.

Swiatek went on to defeat Pegula in the final with a dominant performance of 6-1 6-0 to clinch the title, and with it, she regain the World No 1 ranking that Sabalenka had briefly held for 8 weeks since the US Open.



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