For two-time Grand Slam singles champion and World No.3 Simona Halep, clay has always been an effective field-leveler against the power players.
On Saturday, however, the lively red clay at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix was no match for Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka produced one of the most focused, emphatic results of her career, a definitive 6-3, 6-2 defeat of Halep.
World No.7 Sabalenka, the youngest of the four Top-10 semifinalists at 22, appeared oddly somber as she walked to net afterward and touched rackets with Halep. She betrayed no emotion until she walked off the court -- and then stuck out her tongue, mugging for the camera.
The perfect match, the on-court interviewer wondered?
“Yeah, definitely was a good match for myself,” Sabalenka said. “I wasn’t surprised. I was preparing myself for this kind of game.”
And then her answer dissolved into laughter.
“For winning, I just have to stay really calm,” Sabalenka added in her post-match press conference. “And this is the big difference, because usually when I’m losing it’s because I’m getting frustrated about everything and my mind is not on the game. When I’m staying calm and thinking about the right things, for example, about the game and what I should do, then it helps me to win.”
Sabalenka said she only had five hours of sleep after her late, three-set win over Anett Kontaveit in the quarterfinals.
“I think for now, I’m playing pretty well on the clay court,” Sabalenka said. “There is still something else to learn and something else to improve. Of course, the last two matches I won, it’s – wow – that’s crazy. That’s saying a lot. I’m on the right way and it’s going to bring me a few more steps.”
Halep agreed with Sabalenka's assessment, in her own post-match presser: “When everything goes right for her it’s really tough to return the ball, long and deep, to give her a little bit of a problem,” Halep said. “She overpowered me today.
“She played great. It’s always tough when a player plays like that.”
Waiting for Sabalenka in Sunday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix final is World No.1 Ashleigh Barty. Down a set and 2-4 in the second-set tiebreak, the Australian rallied to defeat World No.5 Elina Svitolina 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 in the first semifinal.
Barty celebrated her 25th birthday by playing three sets of singles, and then two more sets with doubles partner Jennifer Brady. They defeated Vivian Heisen and Wang Yafan 6-1, 7-5, and will meet Desirae Krawczyk and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the doubles final that will follow the singles.
Fun fact: The last player to sweep singles and doubles at Stuttgart was Lindsay Davenport – 20 years ago.
Too much tennis?
“That’s what I love to do,” Barty said. “I love to play tennis. I love to compete, and to do it on my birthday is even more special.”
Like Barty, Sabalenka has a forceful, athletic game that seems made for hardcourts and grass. She admits that sometimes patience is not one of her leading virtues. Maybe that’s why she’s made only one prior clay final in her career, losing to Elise Mertens three years ago in Lugano, Switzerland.
Against Barty, she’ll need that power – and a heavy dose of patience, too.
The head-to-head is, appropriately, 3-all. But this matchup last happened only 25 days ago in the Miami Open quarterfinals. Barty prevailed in a rugged 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3 contest that sent her vaulting toward the title.
Asked if Barty might be tired after all of her court time in Stuttgart, Sabalenka wasn’t convinced.
“I think she have enough power, so she will be there tomorrow, 100 percent,” Sabalenka said. “So, yeah, I’m looking forward to this final and I will do everything I can.”
Sabalenka dominated Halep in every respect, winning 38 of her 50 service points and saving all three break points against her. There were 28 winners, against 21 unforced errors. Halep had 12 winners and 17 unforced errors.
“It was not easy, actually, because you have to [be] really focused against Simona,” Sabalenka said. “I think, yeah, this is a great clay court for my game. Really happy with the final, looking forward to tomorrow’s match.”
She’s 18-5 for the 2021 season and has a 9-4 record in previous finals.
Meanwhile, it’s been a stout run for Barty in her inaugural Stuttgart tournament, but there have been moments of uncertainty when she’s struggled to find her footing on this lively indoor red clay.
In the quarterfinals against World No.9 Karolina Pliskova and again in the semifinals, Barty dropped the first set, regrouped and won in three.
“I’ve never played on indoor clay,” she said earlier in the week. “It is a bit different, it’s pretty quick here and you get kind of rewarded for kind of serving first-strike, which is a little bit unusual on certain clay courts. I think then once you move through Madrid and Rome it’s probably more and more similar each week to what the conditions in Paris are like.
“I don’t feel like a cow on ice by any means. I feel like each match you get better and better. You get more [used] to the uneven surface under your foot. With each match that experience will come and then that comfort will come.”
The bovine reference was a nod to Maria Sharapova’s famously self-deprecating remark regarding her clay game. That was early in her career, though. After winning three Grand Slam singles titles when she was still only 20, Sharapova found her way on clay. She won Roland Garros in 2012 at 25, completing her collection of Grand Slams, and again two years later.
Barty, of course, won the 2019 French Open – her first and only clay title – and has a diverse game for all surfaces.
With the victory over Svitolina, she’s won nine straight matches against Top 10 opponents. Five have come this year and Sabalenka represents an opportunity for an impressive run of 10.
Barty’s breakthrough season of 2019 was followed by 11 months at home in Australia, waiting out the COVID-19 virus. In 2021, she’s now won 19 of 22 matches and titles in Miami and the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne. She’s 10-5 in finals in her career.
Next week will be Barty's 73rd week atop the WTA rankings, ninth on the all-time list. She’s second in the Porsche Race to Shenzhen, but can displace Naomi Osaka at the top of the Leaderboard with a win on Sunday.
Now, all she has to do is avoid falling into the first-set holes.
“I promise you, I’m trying as hard as I can to not get into that position,” Barty said, “but Elina played an exceptional first set. She’s one of the best competitors on the Tour. I knew it was going to be an extremely hard-fought match and an extremely small margin as to which way it would go.”
“It was nice in the critical moments to come up with some pretty good stuff yesterday and today again,” Barty said, when she arrived in press after her doubles match. "Obviously, you enjoy the challenge of playing against the world’s best."
Is this, one reporter wanted to know, the Ash Barty era in women’s tennis?
“Not by any means, mate,” Barty said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of myself. I certainly don’t feel by any means it’s an era of … uh, me.”
Looking forward to the final, Barty said of Sabalenka that “a lot of the time, the ball’s in her court, really.”
Barty continued: “She’s got exceptional power. She’s able to control the ball from first strike off the serve or, alternatively, off the return as well. We’ve had some brilliant matches.
“The challenge for me is to try and get into as many points as I can and try and in a way bring in some variety. Ultimately, all the time, it’s not going to be completely in my control and I just have to accept that.”