Madrid | Superb Swiatek edges Sabalenka in thrilling final

World No 1 Iga Swiatek survived 3 match points and a 3-hour marathon to dethrone defending champion Aryna Sabalenka and lift her first Mutua Madrid Open trophy on Sunday in an epic final that was concluded in a thrilling match tiebreak, 7-5 4-6 7-6(7).

At the end, I don't know what made a difference. I think we both, kind of, deserved to win today. I think it was only about these little points in the tiebreaker. Iga Świątek

“I think it was more about who’s going to be less stressed, and who’s going to be able to play with more freedom,” Swiatek said. “I think, actually, for most of the match, I felt, like, some decisions [from her] were pretty courageous. I was sometimes a little bit back.

“So at the end, I just wanted to not do that, and to also be courageous.”

It was a gripping and gruelling contest, the 10th between them, and a repeat of last year’s championship clash at the WTA 1000 clay court tournament, which Sabalenka won, also in 3 tight sets.

Swiatek, though, was determined to add Madrid to her portfolio, the only European clay court title to have eluded her so far, and in so doing, the 22-year old Pole denied the Belarusian an historic 3rd title in the Spanish capital.

The match was the first contest of the season between the top two in the WTA rankings, and it lived up to expectations, going down as the longest encounter between the two Grand Slam champions at 3 hours and 11 minutes.

The win took Swiatek’s record over Sabalenka to 7-3, as the 3-times French Open champion bagged the only major clay-court title missing on her glittering resume.

“Aryna, to many more finals! It’s always a challenge playing you,” Swiatek said at the trophy presentation. “Thanks for always motivating me, and forcing me to be a better player.”

It is Swiatek’s 3rd title win for the season after having lifted the trophies at the Qatar Open and the Indian Wells Open.

Aryna Sabalenka was going for a 3rd Madrid title and held 3 championships points but was pipped at the post by Iga Swiatek in the final

© Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

Swiatek and Sabalenka fared equally well on Saturday, as the two broke each other 5 times during the match, with the Pole maintaining a 67% conversion rate on her first serve, whereas Sabalenka finished with 68%.

They played a total of 237 points, out of which, Swiatek won just 5 more than Sabalenka, 116.

The other difference between the finalists was the second-serve conversion percentage, with Sabalenka making 52% while Swiatek managed 57% in a battle of very tight margins.

Swiatek and Sabalenka locked horns through a high-quality hour-long opening set in which the Belarusian found consistent depth and width to mute the Pole’s aggression, but she struggled to convert break points against the World No 1 in the swirling breeze on Manolo Santana Stadium.

After an opening exchange of breaks, they traded 8 holds of serve before Sabalenka buckled when serving at 5-5, and she played her loosest game of the set to allow Swiatek to break.

The top seed had to dig deep to hold from 0-30 down and take the set, but her more measured approach to constructing points finally paid off.

An exausted Iga Swiatek burst into tears after winning the marathon final that took 3 hours 11 minutes

© Julian Finney/Getty Images

Sabalenka came into the final battle-tested, having made it through 4 tough 3-set wins over the fortnight, and she quickly put aside the disappointment of the first set by breaking Swiatek immediately to lead 2-0 in the second.

Raising her intensity, the Belarusian nearly went 3-0 up, but her first double-fault of the match opened the door for Swiatek to get on the board.

While the opener had been dominated by the server, the second was defined by the returner, and Swiatek responded to every break of her own serve with a break of Sabalenka’s until she finally held serve to even the set at 3-3.

Serving down 5-4, though, Swiatek struck an untimely double-fault at 30-15, and Sabalenka grabbed her chance, striking 2 clean winners from each wing to break and take the contest into a third set.

The two top seeds traded breaks in the decider, and there was little to separate them until Swiatek served to take the match to the match tiebreak, when she had to save 2 championship points to hold as Sabalenka drifted a forehand just wide on her first chance, while the Pole wiped away the second with a clean one-two punch.

As the match crossed the 3-hour mark in the breaker, Swiatek and Sabalenka changed ends with little separating them at 3-3.

The Belarusian earned the first mini-break, following in a heavy forehand drive with a clean overhead to lead 4-3, but she couldn’t control her response to a deep Swiatek return on the next point.

The Pole earned her first championship point at 6-5 when Sabalenka pushed a forehand long, but the defending champion wiped it out with her 4th ace of the match.

Sabalenka earned her 3rd match point at 7-6, but the backhand that had been so devastating throughout the match once again missed, this time long.

Another error handed Swiatek her 2nd championship point, which she converted when Sabalenka sent another backhand long, and the World No 1 dropped to the ground sobbing in relief and exhaustion.

“At the end, I don’t know what made a difference,” Swiatek said. “I think we both, kind of, deserved to win today. I think it was only about these little points in the tiebreaker.”

Iga Swiatek received the trophy from Garbiñe Muguruza, the former World No 1 who recently retired from the WTA Tour

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The Madrid title marks her 20th career victory, the youngest to reach that milestone since Caroline Wozniacki in 2012.

She has now won both WTA 1000s on clay, and is also a two-time champion at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

“For sure when I look back, in maybe a few years, it will mean a lot,” Swiatek said. “But for now, I’m just happy that I won this tournament anyway. Doesn’t matter for me if I won it before or not. I try to win each tournament that I play.”

Dating back to her loss to Sabalenka in Madrid last year, Swiatek has won her past 7 finals, and she is now tied with Elena Rybakina for the season lead, with 3 titles and 30 match-wins, while her triumph on Saturday netted her a 9th WTA 1000 title.

The fatigue on Swiatek’s mind and body was evident during the presentation ceremony, as the World No. 1 found it hard to put sentences together in her winner’s speech.

“I want to thank my family who’s watching, my sponsors, tournament sponsors, everybody who’s making this tournament possible,” she said. “Also, volunteers, ball kids, sorry for the mean faces sometimes.

“And, erm… yeah let’s… Oh! And thank you guys [fans], sorry I’m too tired, thank you for watching till the end and for amazing atmosphere. It’s always pleasure to be back in Madrid so I’ll be already looking forward for next year and yeah.

“I’ve had pretty nice speeches before, so I don’t know what else to say to make it feel special…”

Earlier in the trophy ceremony Sabalenka briefly set her disappointment aside, joking: “I tried to make this match as long as possible… Hopefully next year it goes to me

“Three hours, that’s a long one! Hopefully we recover fast for the next tournament.”

Later, Swiatek opened up about how she drew inspiration from Rafael Nadal during the marathon final.

“Physically and tennis-wise, it didn’t surprise me, but it did make me feel better, mentally, in the third set,” she said in her press conference. “I felt, like, I was trying hard for two hours and it wasn’t working.

“I wondered if I was going to let go at some point. No. It’s really been until two hours have passed. That surprised me.

She drew inspiration from Rafael Nadal’s legendary comeback against Daniil Medvedev in the 2022 Australian Open final.

“Honestly, one of the things that came to mind is that Rafa had a couple of matches like that,” she said. “The boys have three sets at least, so I guess they have more time for that to happen. I remember when he played against Medvedev in Australia and something clicked.

“He also suffered from being tense and from stress. I’m not sure because I haven’t talked to him, but I’ve felt that. That has given me hope. I would say that looking only at the finals, this has been the most intense and craziest I have ever played. That it’s final makes it even crazier.”

Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka joked with each other at the trophy ceremony

© Julian Finney/Getty Images

Sabalenka later voiced her feelings on her narrow loss to Swiatek to the media.

“I think it’s more complicated, especially when you remember your thoughts on match points, and the way you played,” she said. “It was very tight, I think it’s more difficult. In my case, I’m going to suffer one day, tomorrow I’ll leave to Rome, so I will forget it quickly.

“Tomorrow is my birthday, I hope to be in a good mood. Tomorrow I turn 26.

“It is a hard defeat to accept, but at the same time it is not that I lost it easily, or that I did not give my best. Today I gave everything, I can only be proud of myself and hope that next year it falls on my side.”

Sabalenka made a resounding start to the season by winning the Australian Open title for the second year in a row, but she struggled to build on her success, experiencing early exits across the Dubai Tennis Championships and the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.

Then personal tragedy struck the Belarusian in March, when her former boyfriend apparently committed suicide ahead of her Miami Open campaign.

“I have suffered the two months after the Australian Open, they have been intense,” Sabalenka admitted. “It has been very difficult to find myself again, but I am super happy to return to my level here in Madrid.

“From now on, I can only go to better. I’m looking forward to the next two weeks, I hope to do a little better than here.”

The main draw at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome starts on Tuesday, 7 May.



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