No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka delivered ferocity and fighting spirit to defeat No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 in the Mutua Madrid Open final, reversing two previous losses this year and collecting her first WTA claycourt title.
"I'm not really scared of this surface any more," Sabalenka declared afterwards. "Before I was too much thinking about the clay court, that this is surface not for me, that it's really tough to play on this surface, it's long rallies. I was really too much thinking about this. This year I relaxed and just play my game. I worked a lot on the movement, so I prepare myself really well for the clay court."
The key to Sabalenka's new approach to clay has been to avoid adapting her game.
"Before on the clay court I tried to change my game a little bit," she said. "I tried to play with the topspin, slice, all this stuff. [My coach] said, Listen, you don't need to change your game. Of course, it's good that you can use a little bit more spin on the ball, have this variation. You just have to stay aggressive here and be ready that the ball will come back a little bit more than on a hard court. It's just about little bit longer rallies."
The trophy is Sabalenka's second of the season following Abu Dhabi in January and fourth in the past 12 months. The Belarusian now owns a 10-5 record in finals, and has won 10 of her last 12 since 2019; she will break the Top 5 for the first time next week.
Barty had beaten Sabalenka in three sets in both the Miami quarterfinals last month and the Stuttgart final two weeks ago. The Australian was also on a 16-match red clay winning streak, and had won her past 10 clashes against Top 10 opposition.
But Sabalenka ended both those streaks emphatically and levelled the head-to-head at four apiece. Impressively, the 23-year-old not only displayed a near-unplayable peak level in a dominant first set, but managed to out-compete one of the game's finest tacticians deep into a third set.
"I wouldn't compare match in Miami and here to Stuttgart," said Sabalenka. "Stuttgart I was injured. It's tough to say anything about that match. She was just unbelievable. I gave her opportunity there, and she took it. In Miami, it was really slow courts, long rallies. It was really hot. There, physically I would say it was much harder to play against her than here.
"I think what I did really well here, I stayed focused from the beginning till the end. I was putting her under the pressure, especially in the end of the third set. In those key moments I was a little bit more aggressive. That's what really helped me to win this match."
Sabalenka had been in phenomenal form leading up to the final, dropping just 18 games in five matches, and began in the same vein. A flawless opening act saw Sabalenka strike 11 winners, commit only one unforced error and land 75% of her first serves.
The result was the first bagel set Barty had received in four years, and just the eighth of her entire professional career.
Ashleigh Barty's bagel sets received
2012 Esperance ITF W25 F, l. Olivia Rogowska 6-0, 6-3
2013 Hobart R1, l. Mona Barthel 2-6, 6-0, 6-1
2013 Australian Open R1, l. Dominika Cibulkova 3-6, 6-0, 6-1
2013 Kuala Lumpur QF, l. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2, 6-0
2013 Wimbledon Q1, l. Stéphanie Foretz 6-2, 6-0
2013 US Open R2, l. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 6-0
2017 Toronto R3, l. Garbiñe Muguruza 6-0, 3-6, 6-2
2021 Madrid F, l. Aryna Sabalenka 6-0, 3-6, 6-4
"She takes the ball out of my court and essentially takes the racquet out of my hand when she serves the way she did in the first set," said Barty. "I gave her a few too many looks on second serves. She's able to dominate and take that away from me. I guarantee it won't be the last time that it happens. I'll continue to fight and try to find a way back in each and every time."
To do that, Barty had to wipe the slate clean.
"It's tough to take too many good things out of it," she said of the whitewash set. "You just reset and start again. That was important for me to try to do. I think I just needed to try a few different things. I shifted my court position around more than anything to try to give her a little bit of a different look, try to break some rhythm, some momentum. I was able to do that."
Barty's ability to adjust her strategy mid-match is one of the keys to her success. The 2019 Roland Garros champion has plenty of tactics she can switch to, and the second set saw her scroll through them in a bid to halt the Sabalenka steamroller.
She wheeled out dropshots, serve-and-volleying and net-rushing straight off the return, and slowly but surely began to derail Sabalenka. After getting on the board on her fourth break point for 1-0, Barty broke twice more as a flustered Sabalenka came down to earth.
"I think that's why she's No. 1, because she's always trying to find a way," Sabalenka said. "In the second set she start to use a little bit more her slice, moving better, be a little bit more aggressive."
Rushing her shots in the face of Barty deliberately taking pace out of rallies, Sabalenka sprayed 15 unforced errors in the second set.
This continued into the decider, and when Barty brought up double break point to take a 3-1 lead, the World No.1 seemed to have the upper hand. But Sabalenka gathered herself, reeled in her errors and double faults, and gritted out the hold.
The same pattern repeated as Sabalenka served trailing 3-4, 15-30. A forehand had just sailed long, and she was visibly frustrated. But letting her emotions out only galvanised her. Sabalenka would not lose another point, rattling through the last 11 and sealing the title with a booming backhand down the line.