Ashleigh Barty had little trouble taking out Paula Badosa on Thursday at the Mutua Madrid Open.
The World No.1 rolled to a 6-3, 6-4 victory to advance to her fourth final of the season, where she awaits the winner of No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
How will that one play out? Here are our keys:
Key for Sabalenka
After dismantling Simona Halep in the Stuttgart semifinals earlier this month, Aryna Sabalenka giggled through her response about the difference between winning and losing: “I just have to stay really calm, and this is the big difference. Usually when I'm losing, it’s when I’m getting very frustrated about everything and my mind is not in the game. When I’m staying calm, thinking about the right things, for example about the game [laughs], then it helps me to win.”
Composure has become key to Sabalenka’s surge through the 2021 clay-court season, where she is 8-1, including a pristine run through the Mutua Madrid Open so far. The Sabalenka game plan is always evident: power plays, all the time. A switch, though, has recently flipped.
In the past, a bevy of winners would be matched by an equivalent (or much worse) number of unforced errors; Sabalenka would come through many of those matches in spite of herself. But with improved tranquility, Sabalenka has sharpened her power into something more controlled, and more deadly. Consider this week: Against Vera Zvonareva, Sabalenka had 37 winners to 27 unforced errors, a positive ratio of +10. Facing Daria Kasatkina, the ratio was +7. She went +12 against Jessica Pegula and +6 in a shortened match against Elise Mertens.
Facing fellow power player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the semifinals, the match will likely be determined by who can retain control without sacrificing aggression. Given Sabalenka’s numbers this week, it’s hard to bet against her. At 23, she is maturing rapidly, and woe be to anyone who stands in her way should this keep up. -- Jason Juzwiak
Key for Pavlyuchenkova
Don’t wake up. Don’t give in to the fatigue. Keep doing what she’s been doing.
The 27-year-old Russian has ripped through the Madrid field, beating four consecutive Top 25 players: Madison Keys, Karolina Pliskova, Jennifer Brady and now, Karolina Muchova – who came in 6-0 against Top 20 players this season.
Pavlyuchenkova sounded exhausted afterward.
“I actually have no emotions right now,” she told reporters. “For some reason like I don’t feel anything, which is weird. I guess I’m really tired right now, emotionally drained.”
Against the red-hot Sabalenka, Pavlyuchenkova needs to continue her tidy service; she’s converted 19 of 32 break points (59.4%) and saved 16/28 (57.1%). If she can wait out Sabalanka’s blistering but sometimes inconsistent first serve, Pavlyuchenkova can do damage on those seconds.
“She’s an amazing ball-striker, very good serve,” Pavlyuchenkova said of Sabalenka. “Sabalenka can get very emotional, so let’s see.”
Sabalenka is playing terrific ball, but as Pavlyuchenkova pointed out, she has been known to get excitable under duress. Pavlyuchenkova showed enormous composure against Muchova, erasing a 1-4 second-set deficit and winning her second tiebreaker in an hour’s time. She’ll need more of the same against Sabalenka, who allowed Mertens all of one game in their quarterfinal before the Belgian retired.
The biggest challenge will be ignoring all those physical complaints with another forceful mental performance. -- Greg Garber