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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, May 8, 2021


Aryna Sabalenka soared through 10 straight points sealing a 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 win over Ash Barty to win her first clay-court crown at the Mutua Madrid Open.

Photo credit: Mateo Villalba/Mutua Madrid Open

Competitive contusion have pained Aryna Sabalenka in the past.

Staring down a 3-4 deficit in the deciding set of this dramatic Madrid final, Sabalenka stopped beating herself up and focused her fighting spirit.

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The Belarusian beat back world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty—and severe stress—roaring through 10 straight points to cap a rousing 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 triumph and capture her first career clay-court crown in a dizzying Mutua Madrid Open final.

"Well, of course I'm really happy with this win," Sabalenka said. "It was crazy match there. I'm really happy that I could win this one. Yeah, it feels amazing right now."

Amid Madrid's high altitude, Sabalenka hit through a breeze and Barty ascending to a milestone.

"She's able to serve and hit through the court. When the conditions are quick, she's really taking advantage of that," Barty said. "She's got a very heavy ball that maybe you don't see from the television, but at court level there's quite a bit on the ball.

"She's a big, strong girl. She's able to dominate when she's inside the court. I mean, not having those weapons myself, if I had them, I wouldn't change regardless of what surface I was on."

Sabalenka snapped Barty's 16-match red clay winning streak, collecting her 10th career championship and rising to a career-high ranking of No. 4.

Nine of Sabalenka's 10 titles have come on hard courts. Out-dueling 2019 Roland Garros champion Barty amid breezy conditions and swirling pressure, Sabalenka managed her own spiking stress and controlled her explosive shots playing some of her most dynamic tennis.

"This tournament for you has been fantastic," Barty said to Sabalenka during the trophy presentation. "You thoroughly deserve to be champion so congratulations."

When it mattered most, Sabalenka was at her bruising best avenging a pair of losses in the last five weeks —Barty stopped Sabalenka 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 in last month's Stuttgart final after beating the Belarusian 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3 en route to her second Miami Open title—to win the biggest title of her career. Sabalenka raised her 2021 record to 24-6, which is second to Barty for most wins this year, with her 150th career victory. 

Among the most impressive aspects of this win, Sabalenka played with poise and precision down the stretch against the Tour's premier problem solver. Barty carried an 11-1 record in three-setters into this decider and put herself in position to become the first woman since Maria Sharapova in 2014 to win Stuttgart and Madrid in succession.

"I wouldn't compare match in Miami and here to Stuttgart," Sabalenka said. "Stuttgart I was injured. Yeah, 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 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."

Sabalenka actually knocked the top seed down chasing the Belarusian's blistering return before knocking Barty out with that superb shotmaking spree.

This was a final of three very different acts with Sabalenka overwhelming the opener, Barty muting the Belarusian's power in the second set and leading throughout the third before Sabalenka elevated her explosive game to a place the Aussie, who was massaging her thigh during a late changeover, unable to stay in step.

The world No. 1 leads the WTA in service games held this season (80 percent), but Sabalenka smacked a shot right off the back edge of the baseline breaking Barty in her opening service game.

Aggressive court positioning and jolting power marked Sabalenka's start. She was prowling the baseline and pounding short shots with menacing intent to push the top seed back behind the baseline.

Though Barty is known for her all-court skills and fine finesse, the explosive Belarusian showed her skill shifting from thunder strike to whispering dropper. Sabalenka blasted a backhand down the line to back Barty up creating space for a clever drop shot winner for the double break.

  Imparting more topspin when necessary, Sabalenka hit through Barty and the breezy conditions flipping a forehand into the corner storming to a 5-0 lead after 20 minutes committing just one unforced error in the process.

Tugging on her vanilla Fila baseball cap, Barty tried to stall the barrage but caught her right foot on the clay and tumbled to the court to start the sixth game. 

A streaking Sabalenka jammed a deep crosscourt backhand eliciting a netted reply as she force-fed the top seed a bagel in just 25 minutes. It marked the first time in 17 career finals Barty was bageled and the first time in nearly four years she'd been shutout in a set.

Of course, you wouldn't know it by looking at the Aussie's focused face.

Spinning her head racquet in her hand, Barty earned three break points to start the second set, but Sabalenka saved all three including whipping a wide ace on the third one.  On her fourth break point, Barty chipped a Federer-esque short slice return drawing Sabalenka into an awkward spot near the service line where she scattered a backhand as the Aussie broke.

Barty backed up the break at love for a 2-0 second-set start.

Cracking returns in the corners to spread the court, Sabalenka swept a diagonal forehand winner breaking back to level after four games.

Undeterred, Barty stretched the Australian Open doubles champion then swooped in for a forehand winner. Her second straight gave Barty a 3-2 lead.

Tennis Express

Digging in, Barty prolonged points, gave her opponent unsettling heights and spins on her shots and generally tried to make Sabalenka's baseline life misery.

When the Belarusian ballooned a forehand long, Barty had her third break of the set to snatch the second set and force a decider. Sabalenka sometimes struggled to tame her forehand when Barty suddenly shifted pace from slow slice to a snappy topspin forehand. After playing a near immaculate opening set, Sabalenka sprayed 15 errors in the second set.

Shot variety and mental strength have been Barty assets in prior episodes of this rivalry.

A jittery Sabalenka started showing signs of entering the freak-out zone. After double faulting in the fourth game to face double break point, the Belarusian swiped her Wilson Blade off the red clay several times erupting in a primal scream of frustration.

Venting soothed stress for the world No. 7.

Grunting loudly and striking forcefully, Sabalenka saved both break points, torched a forehand to hold for 2-all and screamed a spirited "come on!" showing she was ready to go toe-to-toe for the title.

Plot twists and sudden surges are a fascinating part of the sport.

For much of the third set, it looked like Sabalenka could implode in error or anger or both. Instead, she just kept fighting and Barty tightened and perhaps began feeling the physical strain of playing her 29th match of the year, including 13th three-setter.

Sliding her slice backhand into net, Barty blinked. Dumping her second double fault, the Aussie confronted face triple break point in the ninth game. Perhaps in the past, Sabalenka may have over-played her hand and blasted a return several feet long. Not today.

Ninety-five minutes into the match, Sabalenka slashed a backhand dagger down the line breaking at love for 5-4.

Stepping up to serve for her first career clay-court crown, Sabalenka stared down the stress and the world No. 1 with confidence and command. Sabalenka hammered her two hander for triple championship point, jolting another backhand in the same spot dancing with delight after an impressive 99-minute win.

In the trophy presentation, both women said they're looking forward to continue this rivalry. They could meet in the Rome quarterfinals. Perhaps we will see it play out again in Paris with Roland Garros set to start on May 30th. 


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