Not long after a convincing straight-sets win against Paula Badosa in the Mutua Madrid Open semifinals, Ashleigh Barty spoke of her growing confidence.
"Without a doubt, you grow with each match that you play, every opportunity you get to try something new or try and rectify a few mistakes that you made in previous matches," Barty said Thursday in press.
"That's all learning. I think the confidence comes from the practice and the preparation. Then the match is the opportunity to go out there and hone your craft. I think with more matches that you play, it's always a different opponent, different conditions. There are so many different variables in tennis - that's the challenge, just trying to bring your best regardless of those conditions. Regardless of who you're playing, what surface, whether it's windy, cold, rainy, whatever it is, trying to adapt to that as best you can.
"I feel like we've had a really good balance of that this year."
Barty has served particularly well this week in the warmer conditions of Madrid. Something she'll rely on Saturday against Aryna Sabalenka, who overpowered Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in just over an hour to reach the final.
Sabalenka hasn't dropped a set all week and, not surprisingly, like Barty, is feeling good about her prospects.
"I just focused on my game, focused on the things, which I have to do on the court," Sabalenka said in press after her semifinal win. "I'm not really focusing on the score or something else. Like all my focus is in the point, in the moment. That's was working quite well so far."
But is her form strong enough to upset the world's top player? WTA web editors Alex Macpherson and Jason Juzwiak break it down.
There's no shortage of numbers to pull up to demonstrate Barty's dominance of the WTA Tour. The Australian is currently riding several winning streaks:
- 9 overall, following her Stuttgart title run two weeks ago
- 16 on red clay, dating back to Rome 2019 - among active players, only Serena Williams has compiled a longer such streak
- 10 against Top 10 opponents, dating back to the 2019 WTA Finals
- 10 against Top 20 opponents, all in 2021
- 5 in finals, dating back to Beijing 2019, where she lost the title match to Naomi Osaka.
Barty also owns a 25-3 record this season, including 11-1 in three-set matches. She has won 10 of her past 12 finals dating back to 2018, including a tour-leading three trophies, at the Yarra Valley Classic, Miami and Stuttgart. And she has the opportunity to improve all these numbers against Sabalenka in Saturday's final - a repeat of the Stuttgart title match, which Barty won 3-6, 6-0, 6-3.
The stats show only part of the story. Barty is known as one of the tour's foremost problem-solvers, and digging into the numbers underlines that her adaptability is a key component. This year, Barty has faced a broad range of challenges, both within matches and on a wider scale, and has come up with the answers every time.
On court, Barty has survived days where her own level has dipped against surging lower-ranked opponents - saving a match point against Kristina Kucova in the second round of Miami, recovering from a second-set breadstick against Tamara Zidansek in the second round in Madrid. She has eked out tight matches against Top 10 players from within a few points of losing, most notably Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina in Stuttgart.
This week, Barty has also risen to the occasion in a hyped third-round clash with Iga Swiatek, the woman who succeeded her as Roland Garros champion, and in the semifinals against Badosa, the only player to have beaten her since February. In both matches, Barty delivered focused, watertight performances to win in straight sets.
Zooming out, Barty has also coped admirably with external pressure. Two months ago, she faced questions about whether she considered herself a "real" World No.1, having been partly kept in that spot because of the Covid rankings freeze. Those have now been quietened. Along the way, Barty has successfully defended a title for the first time (in Miami).
And despite being a player who used to plan her schedule to include as many trips back to Australia as possible, Barty has shown no discomfort now that isn't possible. Committing to a full season on the road cannot have been easy for someone who admits to getting homesick, but Barty has simply got on with it.
The recurring theme throughout all of this has been a recognition that every match against every opponent represents a fresh challenge. Barty leads her head-to-head against Sabalenka 4-3, including both of their contests this year, but is aware of how dominant the Belarusian has been this fortnight.
"I haven't seen her matches, but from the score lines I can kind of picture what's been going on," she said after defeating Badosa. "I've been on the back end of it times before.
"The challenge is to get yourself into a position where she's not controlling the court. It's about neutralising as best you can for me, changing the pace, being aggressive when I have to be, running when I have to as well. It's a massive challenge."
For all the humility in Barty's approach to the match, she has been adept at finding exactly what she needs to do to overcome a plethora of "massive" challenges this year. -- Alex Macpherson
After collecting a ninth win in her past 10 matches on clay to reach the Madrid Open final, Sabalenka was still reserved.
"I think my game has improved a lot on the clay court," Sabalenka said. "For sure, it's given me some confidence, but there's still so many things to work on.”
After sweeping through the early stages of the clay-court season and adding a second straight final in Madrid to her ledger, if there are more facets for Sabalenka to work on, those are becoming less evident - even if they are clear to her.
"Some games, I didn't feel my serve,” Sabalenka said. “Some games, something wasn't working. It's always part of the process. But I'm really happy that from the side, it looks like everything is going my way."
Coming into her Madrid semifinal against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sabalenka said that a sense of calm was the difference between turning matches that could be losses into wins. This composure, she said, helps her focus on the game, rather than her frustrations outside of the lines.
In Madrid, Sabalenka’s frustrations were invisible, as she dominated each of her wins with a steely eyed focus. The No.5 seed has dropped just 18 games in her five matches. Her longest match, against Daria Kasatkina in the second round, took just 79 minutes. The rest took barely an hour, if they even got that far.
In breaking down her first four wins leading to the quarterfinals, I noted that Sabalenka's new level of composed focus helped her execute a positive winner-to-unforced error differential in each match, averaging nearly nine more winners than unforced errors. Could Sabalenka keep that level up against Pavlyuchenkova, another power player, who would turn this into a pure hitting affair?
Oops, she did it again. Sabalenka fired 21 winners to just 11 unforced errors as she stormed past the Russian, once again needing just over an hour.
Match after match, Sabalenka is demonstrating her statements are not idle chatter, but rather a mantra that is pushing her to new heights in the singles rankings and a 23-6 record in 2021.
She had already proved it on hardcourts during the winter, when she put together a 15-match winning streak on a surface where she has had most of her achievements. Now she is showing it on a surface on which she had less prior success and has tripled her career clay-court final appearances as a result.
Will another meeting against World No.1 Barty be a bridge too far? It was in Stuttgart. After another strong run through the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix draw and a one-set lead in the final, Sabalenka suffered a three-set loss, as Barty’s improving play combined with Sabalenka’s body betraying her because of a lingering abductor injury. Three-set matches have been an Achilles heel for Sabalenka this year; she is 3-6 when pushed to a final set in 2021.
But a certain joie de vivre is permeating Sabalenka’s game this week, which could very well be the final touch to nudge her to a victory and her second WTA singles title of the season.
“When I'm here in Madrid and I'm playing my best and I see fans watching, there is nothing to be worried about and to be sad about,” Sabalenka said. “This week I'm definitely a happy person. Hopefully I just keep going like this." – Jason Juzwiak