It’s not often that players will ‘pick’ out the opponent they want to face next after winning a match.
“I want to play Swiatek,” said Sabalenka after her win over Maria Sakkari.
“It’s always great battles with her, tough matches and I like to be in a battle. And I want to get this revenge.”
How did she do it? The conditions probably played a part.
“Really different, but I really like it,” was how Sabalenka described the conditions ahead of the tournament.
Swiatek has power too, but she couldn’t dictate as much as she has done in previous clay clashes with Sabalenka, all of which had been in straight sets.
Sabalenka went for her shots and outhit Swiatek from the baseline, finishing the final with 32 winners compared to 17 from the world No. 1. Perhaps experience counted for something too; Sabalenka is a former champion in Madrid having beaten Ashleigh Barty in the 2021 final, while Swiatek was playing the tournament for just the second time.
Sabalenka described the win as “something special”, and it is something that she has been working towards for a year.
Her stunning form this season – with a 29-4 record she has four more wins than any other player on the WTA Tour – can be traced back to last spring. Having lost to Swiatek three times already by that stage of the season she was determined to do something about it.
“It was really tough for me, but I kept thinking ‘If you want to beat Iga you have to keep running, you have to keep pushing yourself.’
“That’s why I respect her a lot and that’s why I’m saying that what she’s done in tennis motivates me a lot. First of all, it’s tough physically against her and secondly, mentally. Because you feel like you don’t have these few games to drop your level. You always have to stay high with her.”
Sabalenka now looks by far and away the strongest rival to Swiatek on clay ahead of the French Open.
It is a rivalry that seems to be developing nicely, with perhaps a little bit of an edge, plenty of respect, great battles on the court, and now a 2-2 split across their last four matches, three of which have been three-set clashes.
Seeing the top two WTA seeds meet in finals is something that fans have not been accustomed to – this was just the third time in the last 40 years that the WTA world No. 1 and world No. 2 have met twice on clay in a single season. It was also the first time that the world No. 1 and world No. 2 had faced off multiple times in a single season since 2014.
“I think women’s tennis need this kind of consistency to see world No. 1 and world No. 2 facing in the finals,” said Sabalenka after Madrid.
“I think it’s more enjoyable for fans to watch and it’s more intense. I’m not saying that it’s not intense with the rest of the players anyway. If a player reaches the final, it means that she’s in a good shape and it’s going to be tough.
“But I think when people see these kind of finals, it makes them want to see it, like want to see this battle. That’s something amazing, and hopefully we can keep doing what we are doing this season.”
Both will now head to the Italian Open before turning their attentions to the French Open, which starts on May 28.
Swiatek is a two-time champion in Paris and despite not looking as unbeatable as she did this time last year will start as a strong favourite in conditions which she seems to relish. Sabalenka has lost in the third round for the last three years in a row but spoke recently about her determination to improve that record.
“I really want to be in the second week of the French Open,” she said in Stuttgart.
“I would say I was just struggling with the Grand Slams before, and it was more about me really wanting to win a Grand Slam and me getting really crazy on matches than something about the clay. “Because [the] clay is good there, and it’s one of the best clay courts there.”
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