The two most recent Roland Garros champions will meet for the first time in the third round of the Mutua Madrid Open.
No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty battled past Tamara Zidansek 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 before No.14 seed Iga Swiatek saw off Laura Siegemund 6-3, 6-3 to set the blockbuster clash, which also pits two red clay winning streaks against each other. Barty is at 13, having won the Stuttgart title last week in her first appearance on the surface since her 2019 Roland Garros championship run. Swiatek, playing for the first time this week since winning in Paris last year, is at nine.
Both Barty and Swiatek delivered gritty performances to quell the stern challenges of two qualifiers. For much of Barty's match, the Australian had to battle a subpar first serve percentage, mounting unforced errors and an in-form opponent.
"A really tough match," she said afterwards. "I felt my margins were a little bit off today. Made a lot of errors. I think I was missing in the right way, but still just a foot or two here or there makes a big difference. I felt like there were probably too many loose ones for me today."
Barty landed only 51% of her first serves, but it was clutch when she needed it. She struggled to hold initially, needing to save three break points in the first set, but found helpful aces to get out of those games. Ultimately, it was Zidansek who cracked at 4-4 with her first loose service game of the day, suddenly missing the target with her inside-out forehand.
The Slovenian bounced back in style to dominate the second set after saving four break points in its third game. Fresh off her second career WTA final in Bogota, Zidansek has been acclimatised to playing in altitude, and she was able to use her forehand in particular to dictate baseline exchanges. An impressive passage of play saw her take her first ever set from a Top 10 player in style.
Barty was able to immediately wrest momentum back in the third set, though. The World No.1 saved a break point in the first game and then took advantage of a flurry of Zidansek errors to break for 2-0. Improved serving and a willingness to move forwards protected her lead through to the finishing line.
"I don't think there was a lot in it by any means," Barty said. "We had a lot of close games in the first set, early in the second set. In the third, as well, there were a lot of close games. I think the response early in the third was good. I was a bit more aggressive, was able to bring the match back on my terms."
Swiatek was able to join Barty in the last 16 after narrowly escaping a late-stage comeback from her opponent. The Pole led 6-3, 3-0 with a double break after a poor start by Siegemund, who committed 13 unforced errors to just two winners in the first set.
The seeds of Siegemund's surge were planted in the second game of the second set, when the World No.59 won one of the best points of the tournament with superb scrambling and multiple exquisite dropshots. She couldn't save that game, but found her range to pull off several more hotshots as she won three in a row from 0-3 down.
But Siegemund's inconsistency was to be her undoing. Serving at 3-3, 30-15, a double fault and two cheap errors left her trailing again. An extraordinary final game as the German served to stay in the match saw her oscillate between loose errors and clutch play to save a total of 10 match points.
The eleventh was a bridge too far, though. A bold serve-and-volley attempt failed to pay off as Siegemund found the net, putting a relieved Swiatek through after one hour and 40 minutes.
"I learned that you have to be patient," said Swiatek. "Really, it was pretty hard to close that match. Match balls are pretty stressful because you know you're almost at the end. Sometimes a crazy idea may come up. I tried to just be focused on my basic game, to play safe.
"Anyway, I made a lot of little mistakes. I weren't sure where it came from. It was pretty annoying. It just shows that Laura is a great fighter. You could see that also in previous games. In second game of second set, she had amazing rallies, amazing points. She's fighting till the end and she's not giving anything for free."
Monday's clash between Barty and Swiatek is one the players are also looking forward to.
"Real exciting," said Barty. "A match that I look forward to. I've hit with her once in Melbourne a few months ago. She's got a seriously impressive game. Moves very well on the clay court, can slide off both legs, controls her body really well on clay. Likes to use her hopper, gets around, controls the court with her forehand. It's a challenge that we go into with a really clean slate, a little bit of a period of trying to figure each other out and how our games match up."
Swiatek has also taken lessons from their practice session in Australia.
"She has a great slice," she said. "I remember it was hard in Melbourne to keep your legs low, just playing back those slices. I think most of the girls have problem with that. I'm going to remember about that."
That's not the only thing Swiatek, 19, has learned from Barty, whose unusual career trajectory famously involved a two-year hiatus from the game as a teenager.
"I really respect her," she said. "Basically I think it's a good example of dealing with expectations, just having some kind of a distance to the game. I'm also having a hard time finding it. I want to kind of win every match, I want to win right now. Sometimes I'm not giving myself time. She did that.
"I don't know the details. I know it from the perspective of someone who was just reading media. It just shows that when you're going to catch some perspective, just approach tennis differently, it's going to be easier. She's doing that. That's why she's winning tournaments. It seems too easy for her."
Sevastova shows grit and finesse to win
Also through to the third round is qualifier Anastasija Sevastova. A former semifinalist in Madrid in 2017, the Latvian dazzled with her dropshot in overcoming No.15 seed Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-3.
The final games of both sets were the tightest of the match, and Sevastova displayed real fortitude to emerge on top of both. The World No.54 closed out the first set on her fifth set point, and saved four break points against her before serving out the win on first match point. Naturally, the winning shot was a dropshot.