Aryna Sabalenka stopped Ash Barty’s run to claim the Mutua Madrid Open title on Saturday, 6-0 3-6 6-4, and, in so doing, avenged this year’s three-set losses to the Australian in the Miami Open quarter-finals and the recent Stuttgart final.
It’s a big difference, like, between me two years ago and right now. Two years ago I was getting crazy on the court every match, I would say a couple times on the court in each match. I think the more experience you have, the more you understand little bit more what you have to do, what you can’t control. Aryna Sabalenka
“I’m not really scared of this surface any more,” Sabalenka declared afterwards. “Before I was too much thinking about the clay court, that this is surface not for me, that it’s really tough to play on this surface, it’s long rallies.
“I was really too much thinking about this. This year I relaxed and just play my game. I worked a lot on the movement, so I prepare myself really well for the clay court.”
On form, she had dropped a total of just 18 games across 5 match wins in Madrid, and averaged almost 30 winners per outing.
On this windy day, Sabalenka’s first set shot-making was simply sensational as she combined her trademark power with deft drop-shots to hand the Australian her first bagel set in almost 4 years after just 25 minutes, striking 11 winners to 4 while committing just 1 unforced error in the process.
“It’s tough to take too many good things out of it,” Barty reflected on the bagel. “You just reset and start again. That was important for me to try to do. I think I just needed to try a few different things.
“I shifted my court position around more than anything to try to give her a little bit of a different look, try to break some rhythm, some momentum. I was able to do that.”
The Belarusian had charged out of the gates, blitzing her way to the one-set lead but, she then allowed a loss of focus or nerves to creep into her game in the second, and Barty found her footing and configured a way to halt the Sabalenka steam-roller.
The Aussie wheeled out drop-shots, serve-and-volleying and net-rushing straight off the return to slowly but surely begin to derail Sabalenka.
After getting on the board on her 4th break point for 1-0, Barty broke twice more as a flustered Sabalenka came down to earth. and the match was levelled at set-all.
“I think that’s why she’s No 1, because she’s always trying to find a way,” Sabalenka said. “In the second set she start to use a little bit more her slice, moving better, be a little bit more aggressive.”
The World No 7 had not dropped a set coming into the final and the chips were down as Sabalenka found herself in a familiar position, 3-4, 15-30 down in the decider.
Barty had won her last 10 matches against Top 10 opponents and has a habit of coming through tough 3-setters while, in the past, faced with this situation, Sabalenka might well have rushed, or ranted, or overhit. The match was poised on a knife-edge.
Despite holding 2 break points in the 4th game for a 3-1 lead, and coming within 2 points of a 5-3 lead at 15-30 in the 8th game, Barty was unable to take her chances, and Sabalenka reeled off the final 11 points of the match, improving her record on clay in 2021 to 10-1.
“Something change in my mind for the clay court for this year. I’m not really scared of this surface anymore,” smiled Sabalenka, whose previous 9 titles were all won on hard courts. “I think what I did really well here, I stay focused from the beginning till the end.
“I was putting her under the pressure, especially in the end of the third set. Like in those key moments I was a little bit more aggressive. That’s what really helped me to win this match.
“It was crazy match there. I’m really happy that I could win this one. It feels amazing right now.”
After levelling her head-to-head record with Barty at 4-4, Sabalenka has now won 33 of her past 39 matches and will rise to a career-high ranking of No 4 on Monday.
Meanwhile, Barty’s 16-match winning streak comes to an end after her first loss on European red clay since Rome 2019, which included winning her maiden Grand Slam title at Roland Garros that same year.
The Aussie was seen rubbing her left quad during changeovers in the third set but kept the defeat in perspective.
“I think I had two or three break points in that third set,” said. “She had the same. She grabbed her opportunity, I didn’t grab mine. It’s a pretty fine line.
“There’s certainly no shame in losing 6-4 in the third in a final to a Top 10 player. I have absolutely no shame about that, no regrets.”
Barty also made a fair assessment of what what makes the more-imposing and bigger-hitting Sabalenka such a tough opponent for everyone.
“She takes the ball out of my court and essentially takes the racket out of my hand when she serves the way she did in the first set,” Barty said. “I gave her a few too many looks on second serves. She’s able to dominate and take that away from me.”
Also, gone are the ups and downs of years back, the hot streaks and disappointments, it seems, for Sabalenka.
“It’s a big difference, like, between me two years ago and right now,” she said. “Two years ago I was getting crazy on the court every match, I would say a couple times on the court in each match.
“I think the more experience you have, the more you understand little bit more what you have to do, what you can’t control.”
There was only one thing Sabalenka couldn’t control on Saturday. When the match was over, she smiled in the direction of her team and began an arm-swinging dance, expecting her physio, Jason Stacy, to join her but, to her disappointment, he didn’t move.
“We’ve been doing this dance little bit before,” Sabalenka said with a laugh afterwards. “I thought he’s going to follow me, it’s going to be like really cool, like teamwork. He didn’t. This is what I’m really not happy with.”
After completing her dream week at the Madrid Open, Sabalenka heads for Rome, which begins on Monday, where she could well continue her compelling rivalry with Barty in the quarter-finals.
The Madrid trophy is Sabalenka’s 2nd of the season following Abu Dhabi in January and 4th in the past 12 months, and is probably the most satisfying of the 23-year-old’s career as she not only displayed a near-unplayable peak level in a dominant first set, but managed to out-compete one of the game’s finest tacticians deep into a third.
“I wouldn’t compare match in Miami and here to Stuttgart,” said Sabalenka. “Stuttgart I was injured.
“It’s tough to say anything about that match. She was just unbelievable. I gave her opportunity there, and she took it.
“In Miami, it was really slow courts, long rallies. It was really hot. There, physically I would say it was much harder to play against her than here.
“I think what I did really well here, I stayed focused from the beginning till the end.
“I was putting her under the pressure, especially in the end of the third set. In those key moments I was a little bit more aggressive. That’s what really helped me to win this match.”
In the doubles final, No 2 seeds Barbora Krejcikova & Katerina Siniakova defeated 3rd-seeded Gabriela Dabrowski & Demi Schuurs, the all-Czech duo winning their 7th career WTA doubles title as a team in Madrid, 6-4 6-3, to claim the title on Saturday.
“We were aggressive, we were just playing really well,” Siniakova said, after the victory. “This final was a little bit tricky because it was windy…but I think we were just trying to stay focused, fight every point, and we were good as a team.”
It took the Australian Open finalists an hour 19 minute to complete their victory.
“Of course [Dabrowski and Schuurs] are really good doubles players, so we were expecting them to go quickly to the net and try to cross,” Siniakova added. “The beginning was a little bit strange because we were losing our serves, but I think we fought hard, and we found a little bit of the rhythm better than them.
“We were trying to be the first ones to be in the offence, and I think we did a pretty good job.”
“After the first set, all the pressure that we had got a little lower, and I think in the second set, we were pretty much controlling the match,” Krejcikova said during her post-match interview. “I think we are playing well on every surface.
“The bigger tournaments that we [play], it’s more prestige, we just want to push ourselves to the limit and do our very, very best.”