If styles make matches then it's no wonder that Aryna Sabalenka vs Ashleigh Barty is the match-up of 2021 so far. On the face of it it's a classic power vs defence contest, but there's so much more to it than that.
Barty, the defender and counter-puncher, has added extra oomph to her game this year with new strings, and is one of the best tacticians and thinkers on the WTA Tour. Sabalenka has connected composure and poise with her power, and seems to have figured out how to transfer her game effectively to clay.
Saturday's Madrid Open final between the pair was the third time they have met this year, the third three-setter between them this year, and the first that Sabalenka has won. It's a tantalising prospect to think they have another potential meeting in the Rome quarter-finals this week and then maybe another at Roland-Garros later this month.
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What makes it even more tantalising is the result of the latest meeting.
Barty had won their previous two matches this year, coming through in three sets on hard courts in Miami - "really slow courts, long rallies" according to Sabalenka - and then battling from a set down to win on clay in Stuttgart - "I was injured, she was just unbelievable," was Sabalenka’s verdict.
So how would things play out in faster conditions in Madrid, with Barty on a 16-match winning run on red clay and 10-0 against top-10 opponents in 2021, and Sabalenka having not dropped a set all tournament and lost just 18 games in five matches?
The first set produced perhaps the most unexpected outcome as Sabalenka swept through in 25 minutes without losing a game, handing Barty her first bagel in four years. Sabalenka’s power, which had blown away all her previous opponents in Madrid, was proving too much for Barty, especially with a 75 per cent first-serve percentage.
"She takes the ball out of my court and essentially takes the racquet out of my hand when she serves the way she did in the first set," reflected Barty afterwards.
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But Barty is one of the best problem-solvers on tour and she started to make adjustments in the second set - "You just reset and start again…I think I just needed to try a few different things.” There was more slicing from Barty, more drop shots, some serve-volley plays and a little more all-round aggression.
"I think that's why she's No 1, because she's always trying to find a way," said Sabalenka.
But on this occasion Barty's path to victory was blocked off by a resilient Sabalenka. Having seemed to be in trouble trailing 1-2 and 15-40 down in the third set, Sabalenka held, managed to cut down on her unforced errors, and won the last 11 points of the match to take the title. She will now move up to No 4 in the world and, although she has never previously gone past the fourth round at a Grand Slam, should be one of the favourites at Roland-Garros later this month.
Sabalenka’s improvement on clay has been one of the stories of 2021 so far. Before the start of the year she had only reached one final on the surface – a WTA 250 in 2018 – and it has never seemed to be the best fit for her game. But not only has she showed she can succeed on clay, she has done it without making any major alterations to her approach.
"I'm not really scared of this surface anymore," she said after beating Barty.
"Before on the clay court I tried to change my game a little bit. I tried to play with the topspin, slice, all this stuff. [My coach] said, Listen, you don't need to change your game. Of course, it's good that you can use a little bit more spin on the ball, have this variation. You just have to stay aggressive here and be ready that the ball will come back a little bit more than on a hard court. It's just about little bit longer rallies."
With her second title of the year in the bag, Sabalenka will have more silverware in her sights over the next month, as well as potentially climbing higher up the rankings. She could gain points in Rome, where was beaten in the first round the last time she played in 2019, and at Roland-Garros, where she lost in the third round in 2020. Then it’s onto the grass, where her powerful game could also be a threat.
But Barty must remain the favourite for Roland-Garros given her impressive form over the last month, and it will be fascinating to see whether she comes up with a different approach the next time she faces Sabalenka.
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