No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka kept on motoring through the clay-court season, although her latest victory at the Mutua Madrid Open came to an early end as her friend and frequent doubles partner Elise Mertens withdrew from their quarterfinal due to a left thigh injury while trailing 6-1, 4-0.
"I feel really sorry for this, and I hope that she will get better soon," Sabalenka said to the press after the match. "Hopefully she will be ready for the next one in Rome."
Celebrating her 23rd birthday today, Sabalenka is now up to 8-1 on the dirt thus far in 2021, with her run to the Stuttgart final being followed by a dominant display in Madrid, where she is still yet to drop a set.
A clash against No.13 seed Mertens held much promise; the close-knit pair had played six times previously with Sabalenka holding the 4-2 edge, but Mertens had won their only previous clay-court clash, which came in the Lugano final in 2018.
The combatants, who have won two Grand Slam doubles titles together, including at this year's Australian Open, never got their match off the ground as Sabalenka was in complete control early on, while Mertens struggled with her injury during the latter stages. The Belgian ultimately ended the tilt before it hit the one-hour mark.
"In the beginning it was really tough to play against her, because she was using high balls and mixing it with slice and then trying to stay aggressive," Sabalenka said. "As soon as I understand what she's trying to do, I was kind of stepping into the court and trying to be a little bit more aggressive, and going through the ball and trying to hit heavy shots."
Sabalenka took command early in the match, staving off a break point in the first game before using outrageous returns to pressure the Mertens serve and clinch two breaks. With a 5-1 lead in her pocket, Sabalenka cruised to a hold for the set with two service winners, a deft dropshot, and a forehand winner to close.
At this point, Sabalenka was mastering every shot, cracking a forehand winner to take another double-break lead at 3-0, while Mertens took a medical time-out to have her injury tended to. After Sabalenka crushed a forehand return winner to set up a break point for a 5-0 advantage, Mertens deemed herself unable to continue, and the friends shared a hug at the chairs.
"I'm really happy with [my] level on the clay court," Sabalenka said. "I'm really happy that I don't feel anymore that I cannot play on the clay court, and I start to really like it."
Sabalenka's semifinal opponent will be Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who defeated Karolina Muchova in two tiebreak sets, 7-6(4), 7-6(2) to post a career-best result at the Mutua Madrid Open.
"I just found this momentum in the second set, I was so on and focused on every single point I was playing, that I kind of turned off, I think," Pavlyuchenkova said, in her post-match press conference. "I’m still probably somewhere there, in the end of the second set."
World No.41 Pavlyuchenkova has contested the Madrid event a whopping 12 times in her career. Her previous best showing in Madrid was a quarterfinal run which came a decade ago in 2011, before exceeding that milestone with her two-hour victory over 20th-ranked Muchova.
After a tough start to the season, Pavlyuchenkova has mastered the clay in Madrid, knocking off four Top 25 players in succession and reaching her first WTA semifinal since her runner-up showing in Moscow at the end of 2019.
In obtaining her second win in her two meetings with Muchova, Pavlyuchenkova converted all four of her break points. Muchova also broke the Russian four times, but let seven other break points go begging in the clash.
Overall, Pavlyuchenkova triumphed by firing 29 winners to Muchova's 17. The Russian also had three fewer unforced errors than Muchova.
After Muchova prevented Pavlyuchenkova from serving out the first set at 5-4, the Czech then used a variety of power, dropshots, and lobs to garner three set points at 6-5. However, Pavlyuchenkova was able to wriggle out of each of those chances, as the Russian continued to play aggressively and come out on top when she most needed to.
Following that close call, Pavlyuchenkova built up a lead in a decisive tiebreak, firing winners off of both wings to edge ahead 5-2. A long miscue by Muchova gave the Russian a 6-3 lead and three set points of her own, and a forehand winner sealed the set on Pavlyuchenkova’s second opportunity.
Muchova turned the momentum in her favor in the early stages of the second set, using sturdy returns to move ahead by a double-break at 4-1. But Pavlyuchenkova continually chipped away at that lead, breaking at love for 4-2, then fending off Muchova’s attempt at serving out the set at 5-4.
Muchova had another pass at serving out the set at 6-5, but once more, Pavlyuchenkova steeled herself to draw errors and break serve. Another tiebreak would settle affairs, and it was even more straightforward than the one in the first set as Pavlyuchenkova went one step further than she ever had in Madrid.
"After such a tough first set, I thought ‘Okay, now I want to finish the second one, I’m so tired, let’s go home!’" Pavlyuchenkova said. "But it’s not working like this, you gotta work every point."
Down 1-4 in that second set, Pavlyuchenkova said that she "somehow got my energy level back, and I felt so positive and so confident. Yesterday I came back in the second from 4-1 down as well, I can do it, and that’s what I said to myself. All of a sudden, my feet were moving, I started to hit the ball, and I played. At 6-5, I just said, 'I can finish now,' and in the tiebreak I felt good."