Aryna Sabalenka captured her 10th career title, snapping No.1 Ashleigh Barty's 16-match winning streak on red clay by edging the top seed 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 on Saturday to win the Mutua Madrid Open. The title signified a breakthrough for the big-hitting Belarusian in more ways than one.
Madrid is the first non-hardcourt title of Sabalenka's career; her first nine titles coming on quick hardcourts. She won it by setting a tournament record in fewest games lost en route to the final, losing just 18 games across five matches headed into the final. The 23-year-old was the youngest Madrid finalist since a 22-year-old Simona Halep and the second-youngest champion after Petra Kvitova, who won her first of three Madrid titles at 21 years old in 2011.
"I'm not really scared of this surface anymore," Sabalenka told reporters after winning the title. Madrid was Sabalenka's second clay final in two events. She was a runner-up at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix two weeks ago, where she fell in three sets to Barty and also bowed out to the No.1 in the quarterfinals of Miami. Her win leveled her tight head-to-head with the Aussie at 4-4 and constituted her first three-set win over a Top 10 opponent since 2018.
Sabalenka will rise to a career-high No.4 on Monday and move up the Porsche Race to Shenzhen Leaderboard at No.3.
"No. 4, this is not No. 1," Sabalenka said with a smile. "There's still lot of things to work on and to improve."
Sabalenka joined the WTA Insider Podcast after the final to reflect on her two weeks in Madrid, which almost didn't happen, and looks ahead to the stop on her quest for her first major title: Roland Garros.
WTA Insider: You said in your press conference that after injuring your leg in the Stuttgart final, you weren't sure if you would even be able to play Madrid and considered possibly withdrawing. Yet your run to the final was dominant. You lost just 19 games over five matches and did not lose a set before Saturday. How do you explain your level in Madrid?
Sabalenka: I think because of the leg, I was really focused on the level of my shots, to hit it clean and heavy, make sure I don't really need to move a lot. I think that's why there were a lot of winners and a lot of great points and really quick matches. I think everything was because of the leg and as I was going far, the better I was feeling. This is something just unbelievable. Maybe I always have to focus on the shots, not on something else (laughs).
WTA Insider: Your last two losses came to Barty, both three-setters, in the Miami quarterfinals and Stuttgart final. Did you approach this match differently?
Sabalenka: Not really a big difference. But of course, I wanted to win this match because nobody wants to lose three matches in a row against one opponent. So I was really focused and I really wanted to win this match. I think this is the biggest difference.
I always want to win the match, but when you are losing two matches in a row against one opponent and then you have to face her in another final, you're kind of a little bit, this time I have to win it. This was the difference. And I was hoping that I'm not going to hurt anything else in this one.
WTA Insider: You came out in the final and played a fantastic first set. You hit 11 winners and just 1 unforced error. But early in the second set, despite having this lead, we could see you starting to get frustrated.
Sabalenka: Well, I was really surprised with the level in the first set. It was too good. I just said after the first set that, well now you have to start from the beginning.
I think she started to play a little bit better in the second set and I dropped a little bit. I had some opportunities there in the second set and I didn't take it. I gave her an opportunity and she took it. That's why she's No.1.
But I wasn't really stressed out. I was kind of like, keep working, keep trying, and keep staying aggressive, but it didn't really work. She started to use a lot of her backhand slice. It was really good in the second set from her. It was really tough to do anything against this slice.
In the third set I said to myself that I have to be a little bit more aggressive. Don't give her so much time so she cannot do all these slices and forehand spins. In those key moments, I was really aggressive and again a lot of winners. It helped me and it saved my match. That's why I think I won this one.
WTA Insider: In the third set, Barty had a few break point chances early that you wiped out, and then at 3-4, 15-30 you seemed to settle down and proceeded to reel off the next 11 points to win the match. What happened there?
Sabalenka: I just said to myself, "Listen, cool down. You just have to work here." It's not about emotions. I was really lucky to win that game. After that game, I thought, "OK, from the beginning again. Just keep working, keep fighting, keep being aggressive."
This is the battle. This is the fight. You have to do everything you can. There's no time for emotions. I think from that moment something a little bit changed in my mind and helped me to make all those winners.
WTA Insider: This is your first clay-court title and it's a big one. How would you summarize your feelings at match point? Relief? Pride? Excitement?
Sabalenka: I was screaming inside, like, "Come on! I did it! First title on clay court! I can play here!" This was everything I was thinking in that moment. I was just really happy.
WTA Insider: Did you feel the need to prove that you could win on clay?
Sabalenka: I think I needed to prove it to myself. This is what was really important for me.
WTA Insider: In her press conference, Barty said that she doesn't have your weapons, but if she did, she would not change anything when playing on clay. You mentioned earlier this week that this is a realization you've come to with your coach. Can you expand on that?
Sabalenka: Yeah, this is something that we've been talking with my coach. Before I was trying to change it for no reason, actually. That was tough to play with another tennis, which I'm never playing and I have to adjust it to the clay court.
I just spoke with the coach and he just said you don't need to change it. You just have to play your game and just be prepared that the ball can come back extra. An extra few balls can come back and you just have to be ready for them and that's it. Just stay aggressive play your game.
This is exactly the thing, that I have to keep playing the same tennis on every surface.
WTA Insider: When people think of your game, they think of the power and the bang-bang hitting. But over the last year you've added a lot more feel in your game, using dropshots, using more sharp angles. Do you think playing doubles so successfully the last few years helped that aspect of your game?
Sabalenka: I think doubles really helped me with the returning game. And with the volleys and maybe with the lobs. I think that's it. Because in doubles you cannot do a dropshot because then the player on the net will take it. It's about the volleys, returns, serves. I've worked a lot on the practice court on the touch game, so I make sure I can use it when I need it.
WTA Insider: If you win a WTA 1000 before Roland Garros, people will talk about you as a threat in Paris. You've gone through this pre-Slam hype before. How do you think you will handle it this time?
Sabalenka: I'm happy that people will speak about me and that people believe that I can win the Grand Slam. This is good. That's it. I will keep focusing on my game, keep focusing on the things, which I have to do to bring this level on the next tournaments and to play my best in the next tournaments and that's it. I'm really happy that people believe in me.
WTA Insider: What's your mindset going into Rome?
Sabalenka: We'll see tomorrow how I physically feel, because for now I don't know. I just start to feel I'm getting tired, but I have Jason with me.
I think I need more matches because if I skip Rome then it's three weeks off and then it's a little bit tricky with Paris. So I think I still need these matches and make sure then I have only two weeks off. It's different actually, three weeks or two weeks. I still need these matches. I will do my best to prepare for Rome and to be there, to play my best, and to keep winning.
WTA Insider: So how do you plan to celebrate your first clay-court title?
Sabalenka: Sad to say, we have a bet with my coach that I cannot eat sugar. If I will eat it, then I will carry him on around the court and I don't want to do this.
But I'm going to Rome and there are a lot of good restaurants and I will enjoy pizza because it's not sweet. It doesn't count. That's it.