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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Thursday May 6, 2021

barty v sabalenka

Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka will meet for the third time in 2021, with the Madrid Open title at stake.

Photo Source: Madrid Open

Could the third time be a charm for Aryna Sabalenka in Saturday’s Madrid Open final? The Belarusian has been victimized by Ash Barty in three sets on two occasions already in 2021, at the Miami Open in the quarterfinals and in the final at Stuttgart less than two week ago. On Saturday she’ll hope to change the tone of a budding rivalry between two of the WTA’s most in-form clay-court players.

Let’s have a look at the matchup…

Tennis Express

Barty a picture of poise

Both Barty and Sabalenka come into Saturday’s final towing a boatload of impressive results. Barty is 25-3 in 2021 with three big titles—Yarra Valley Classic, Miami Open and Stuttgart—to her name, while Sabalenka is rolling along with a 23-6 record, and in the midst of a breakout season on clay.

As it did in their last two meetings, something has to give, and if it comes down to pressure-packed moments the edge has to go to Barty. The Aussie has won each of her last nine three-setters and owns an 11-1 record in deciders in 2021. Pan out and look at the big picture and we find that the trend has been in place for a long time for Barty. She’s 58-20 lifetime in three-setters.

After her last three-set win, over Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, Barty talked about her success.

“I feel like it’s just always staying in the fight, always staying in the hunt and never letting it slide away,” the Aussie said. “That certainly doesn’t guarantee results, doesn’t guarantee success. It guarantees you give yourself the best chance to do what you do and to figure it out and to find your way. I think it’s important not to panic, but I think everyone emotionally has different ways that they play on the court. I have always been quite calm on the court. That’s just always been my demeanor. But for me it’s more about just trusting myself and knowing that we just keep chipping away and trying to find a way and then give yourself time to do that.”

The flip side: Sabalenka’s heartbreak

Sabalenka has been a true revelation thus far in 2021, but her Achilles heel has been her ability to find a way to win the big one. Her tough luck started at the Australian Open where she couldn’t get past Serena Williams in the round of 16, and it has kept up since. There have been the two losses to Barty (Miami, Stuttgart) and other tough ones to Garbiñe Muguruza (Dubai, and Doha).

When it comes to three-setters, Sabalenka is the exact opposite of Barty. She’s struggled, amassing a dreadful 3-6 record in them.

But Sabalenka has not let the losses dampen her enthusiasm, and that’s one of the biggest reasons she has been so successful in 2021. She keeps giving herself chances, deep in draws, and always it takes a red-hot player to knock her out. She is playing—and talking—like she knows her time will come.

“I was really first like really angry and crazy about it, but these losses give me kind of power, and it motivates me to work even harder. From [those] matches I can see what I have to work on, which is good,” she said. “I just keep working and I keep improving myself, [to] make sure that the next matches I will win.”

Both are sizzling on clay

When we think of clay gurus on the WTA Tour, we often turn our attention to Simona Halep, Kiki Bertens, Elina Svitolina and others whose games seems to be better suited for the surface. But in 2021 Barty and Sabalenka are the dominant players, hands down.

Barty has done everything to prove that her 2019 Roland-Garros was not a fluke. She improved every round in Stuttgart, notching three Top 10 wins in the final three rounds to take the title. Sabalenka, meanwhile, has been a revelation. The Belarusian was barely above .500 lifetime (15-13) on clay entering the season. This year she has gone 9-1 and looks like she can continue the success.

These days, Sabalenka plays with more variety, and she’s a better mover. She’s also a tireless worker, and her effort is clearly paying dividends. She’s happy about that:

“I’m really happy with the level on the clay court, and I’m really happy that I kind of don’t feel it anymore that I cannot play on the clay court and I start to really like it,” Sabalenka said. “I’m really enjoying my time on the court. I’m really pleased with the level here, especially in Madrid.”

The surface may favor Sabalenka, while the matchup may favor Barty

Balls fly in Madrid, which means that the jaw-dropping power of Sabalenka might be that much more forceful—never a bad thing for her. If there is a clay-court venue that is perfect for her, this might be it. Her topspin has the potential to give Barty fits on this fast-playing surface, and the Aussie is aware of it.

“She's played an exceptional week thus far,” Barty said. “She's been extremely dominant from the scorelines I have seen. I haven't seen her matches, but from the scorelines I can kind of picture what's been going on. I've been on the back end of it times before.”

But if there is a player with the skillset to counter Sabalenka’s firepower it would be Barty. She can use her variety to get the Belarusian on the move and take her out of her hitting zone while returning. While serving, Barty is extremely consistent and able to hit her spots. Her second-serve is among the best in the women’s game. The complete Barty serving package creates a nuanced, offensive approach that should be able to negate Sabalenka’s return aggression. Barty will have to walk the tightrope to get it done, but she’s proven time and time again in 2021 that’s she is up for any and all challenges that come her way.

“For her it's serving and first shot, being able to control the point,” Barty said of the keys to her success. “That gives her freedom on return games to be more aggressive and to really knuckle down. The balance for her must be really good this week. The challenge is to get yourself into a position where she's not controlling the court. It's about neutralizing as best you can for me, changing the pace, being aggressive when I have to be, running when I have to as well. It's a massive challenge.”

It will come down to small details again

Barty has played exceptionally well under pressure all season long, and Sabalenka, despite her consistently high level, has fallen short in such situations. Here comes yet another opportunity for Sabalenka to take another step in her progression. Can she stick with Barty during the tense moments, which are bound to happen, and see herself through to the other side?

In many ways this match will be a microcosm of Sabalenka’s career. She’s been such a breathtaking player and recorded so many brilliant triumphs. And yet she still has yet to reach the quarterfinals of a major. How? Bigger triumphs are coming for Sabalenka, that much has been made clear this year, but whether she can gut one out against a World No.1 that is hitting all the high notes in 2021 is another story.


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