The Insider Wrap is a weekly recap of everything you need to know from the week that was. This week, WTA Insider looks back at the Mutua Madrid Open, where Aryna Sabalenka and Ashleigh Barty continued to lay the groundwork for a riveting rivalry.
Performance of the Week: Aryna Sabalenka
Ever since her breakout 2018 season, so much of the focus on the big-hitting Belarusian has been on what she hasn't done, namely that she had yet to make a dent at the Slams. But that chatter ignored what she had done, which is compile a CV that would be the envy of anyone.
Sabalenka has now captured her 10th career title at the Mutua Madrid Open. Of the 25 and under bevy of WTA talent, only the woman she vanquished in the final, No.1 Ashleigh Barty, has won more titles (11). Having now harnessed her powerful game on clay, which she attributes more to a change in mindset and improved physicality, rather than any significant tactical adjustments, Sabalenka has shown just how much she has improved.
Dmitry Tursunov, who coached Sabalenka through her initial breakthrough, once described Sabalenka's raw talent as game-changing, equating her potential to a trio of WTA icons.
"She could be that person that changes the game the way Serena changed the game, or the way Monica Seles changed the game, or the way Steffi Graf changed the game," Tursunov said in 2018. "She's bringing a lot more physicality, a lot more power, but also controlled power. There's a lot of girls who can hit hard but, generally, they tend to not move well or they're just kind of one-dimensional."
Now working with coach Anton Dubrov and fitness coach Jason Stacy, Sabalenka has discovered a way to play her blistering power game consistently. Since the tour restarted after the pandemic break last summer, Sabalenka has won four titles and made her first Slam quarterfinal in three years, narrowly losing in three sets to Serena Williams at the Australian Open.
Sabalenka now sits at a career-high No.4 and sits at No.3 on the Porsche Race to Shenzhen Leaderboard, behind Barty and Naomi Osaka. Since the start of the Australian Open, it has taken the likes of Serena, a resurgent Garbiñe Muguruza (Doha, Dubai), and a streaking Barty (Miami, Stuttgart) to hand Sabalenka a defeat. Sabalenka credits her consistency to her maturity. She will always be a fiery competitor, but now she's found a way to channel that energy rather than succumb to it.
That was evident in Saturday's final against Barty, where she set aside any frustration of finding herself behind in the third set to win the final 11 points to snap her two-match losing streak to the Aussie.
2021 has been a season of "statement wins", whether it was Osaka's dominance in Melbourne, Swiatek's searing run in Adelaide, or Barty's pressure-packed triumph in Miami. Add this Sabalenka run to the list. And watch out.
Surprise of the Week: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
The Russian posted her first Top 20 and Top 10 wins of the season to make her first WTA 1000 semifinal in over a decade. En route to the Madrid semifinals, Pavlyuchenkova defeated Madison Keys, Karolina Pliskova, Jennifer Brady, and Karolina Muchova to post her biggest result 2010 Cincinnati.
"I have had the rough moments at the beginning of this year, because I'm used to always [being] the youngest one always on tour," Pavlyuchenkova said. "Everything was ahead of me. I was there. I was winning matches quite consistently. Okay, maybe I wasn't Top 10, but still kind of felt like, Okay, I got this. Maybe not this week but next week.
"Then all of a sudden at some point I just came to the point where I thought, okay, you know, maybe I don't belong there anymore. Like, maybe it's time to go. At some point I felt like, I feel a little bit lost.
"These COVID times have been tough. Everybody is working so hard. Every girl, I feel like everybody is playing well on tour. I wasn't sure, like, am I capable of beating those Top 20 players again or Top 10 players? Then you just start to doubt yourself. You doubt the work you're doing."
Despite the setbacks, which saw her ranking drop outside the Top 40, Pavlyuchenkova kept plugging away. She reuinted with her brother as her coach and, with her Madrid run, is back up to No.30 and in the hunt for an Olympic spot.
The Spaniard backed up her career-best season to become the first Spanish woman to advance to the semifinals in Madrid. A junior Roland Garros champion in 2015, Badosa is now a proven threat on clay, having also made the semifinals in Charleston last month.
Badosa's career surge started at Roland Garros last year, where she quietly advanced to her first major Round of 16 with wins over Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko. Circle her name in the draw in Paris.
All good streaks must pass and Barty won't be hanging her head about how her 16-match red clay winning streak ended. Barty will be the first to tell you that she never thought Roland Garros would be the site of her first major triumph and she's still counting down the days until her favorite grass season.
But through Stuttgart and Madrid, the World No.1 quieted any whispers that may have been swirling about her prowess on clay and further solidified her position at the top of the tour.
Muchova is the only player to post wins over both No.1 and No.2 this season, having now beaten Barty at the Australian Open and now Osaka in Madrid. When she's healthy - and Muchova emphasized she was still not 100% healed from an abdominal injury - the quiet Czech is proving herself to be an absolute world-beater. She just has to stay healthy.
Not only did the Belgian score a physical 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 win over two-time champion Simona Halep in the Round of 16, but on Monday she became the Doubles No.1 for the first time in her career. Mertens, who won the Australian Open title with Sabalenka and the Istanbul title with Kudermetova, is the 45th player to hold the Doubles No.1 ranking and the first Belgian since Kim Clijsters in 2003.
Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova
Seeded No.2 in Madrid, Krejcikova and Siniakova captured their biggest title since winning 2018 Wimbledon and their seventh team title overall. The Czech duo defeated the first-time pairing of Gabriela Dabrowski and Demi Schuurs, 6-4, 6-3 in the final.
Pic of the Week:
3: Times Aryna Sabaleka and Ashleigh Barty have played each other in the last five weeks. The two could meet again in the quarterfinals of Rome this week.
18: Games lost by Aryna Sabalenka en route to the Madrid final, the fewest in tournament history.
2011: The year a 21-year-old Petra Kvitova won her first of three Madrid titles. At 23 years old, Aryna Sabalenka is the second-youngest Madrid champion.
I hope so. Huge respect & good luck! 🙌 https://t.co/jq0aRueudS— Iga Świątek (@iga_swiatek) May 4, 2021
18: Consecutive sets won by Iga Swiatek on red clay. Ashleigh Barty snapped that streak in the Round of 16, defeating Swiatek 7-5, 6-4.
25: Wins for Ashleigh Barty in 2021, the most on tour. Aryna Sabalenka sits at No.2 on the list with 23 wins.
0: Losses for Karolina Muchova against Top 20 players in 2021. The Czech is now 5-0 vs. Top 20 opposition (d. Pliskova, Mertens, Barty, Osaka, Sakkari)
Quote of the Week:
“I saw a few tweets that I was the youngest to make quarterfinals back in 2011 and now I’m the oldest semifinalist. This hit me so bad (laughs).— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) May 5, 2021
“At the same time, it’s like hell yeah. I’m the oldest and I’m still playing good tennis.”
- @NastiaPav#MMOPEN pic.twitter.com/bUzbzHpp4L