Madrid, with its notoriously thin air that rewards aggressive play, has always seemed like a good fit for Madison Keys’ muscular game.

“My literally entire career, everyone has been, `You’ll love Madrid. It’s amazing. You’re going to do so well there,’” Keys told reporters at the Mutua Madrid Open.

“And I have lost first or second round except for once every single year. But I guess this year it’s finally clicking and maybe it is suited for my game, or at least this Madison’s game.”

This Madison? How does this 29-year-old version differ from previous Madisons?

Meet the 2024 Madrid Open semifinalists

“She’s older and wiser,” Keys said, smiling.

“I think finally I’m not forcing it. When you’re trying to force something to happen it seems like it gets further and further away. So finally, I said I’m just going to go out and do my best and we’ll see what happens.”

What’s happened so far has been eye-opening. The No.18 seed defeated No.8 Ons Jabeur 0-6, 7-5, 6-1 to reach the Thursday semifinals. Her semifinal opponent is World No.1 Iga Swiatek, who lost the first set to Beatriz Haddad Maia in the quarterfinals but came back to win 4-6, 6-0, 6-2.

The other semifinal features No.2 Aryna Sabalenka, who defeated 17-year-old Mirra Andreeva in straight sets, against No.4 Elena Rybakina, a dramatic three-set winner over Yulia Putintseva. Rybakina was down 5-2 in the third set and saved two match points in winning the last five games.

That would make Keys the only player not ranked among the Hologic WTA Tour Top 4 in the semifinals. Who will advance to the final? We assess the combatants’ chances.

No.1 Iga Swiatek vs. Madison Keys, Thursday, 4 p.m. local time

The case for Swiatek

Let’s review: Swiatek has won three of the past four titles at Roland Garros and two of the past three in both Rome and Stuttgart. This is where we remind you that Swiatek is 22 years old -- until the last day of May.

Not only is she ranked No.1, not only is she most comfortable on clay, but Swiatek, outside of one hiccup here, is playing lights-out tennis. In six of her nine sets, she’s lost one game or fewer. The past two matches, over Sara Sorribes Tormo and Haddad Maia, have produced two 6-0 sets. Ten of her 58 sets in WTA 1000 events (17.2 percent) have ended in a shutout -- the highest rate since they invented WTA 10002s in 2009. Her only dropped set came against Haddad Maia, and she responded with, yes, a perfect 6-0.

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80% Win 4
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“Two years ago, I was an underdog and it was kind of normal for me that I’m going to struggle in most of my matches,” Swiatek said. “Now it’s a little bit different because I start from the point where everybody expects me to, you have easy matches. So I’m trying to deal with my expectations and choose the right solution for the moment.”

Swiatek has won two of the three previous matches against Keys, including the only one on clay -- 7-5, 6-1, three years ago in Rome.

The case for Keys

After suffering a shoulder injury, it was a soft open for Keys in 2024. She played her first match two months in and split six contests in Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston.

But in Madrid, Keys has come alive, winning three matches -- the last two against No.3 seed Coco Gauff and Jabeur. She’s a big hitter but after the injury she’s gone to a more potent string arrangement, and it’s working nicely. She’s playing without the pressure of expectation, which is something her opponent can’t say.

Role Reversal: How Keys reeled in Jabeur to make first Madrid semifinal

Keys is a decided underdog to Swiatek, but she’s shown some impressive resilience. Four of her eight sets have required seven games -- and she won them all. The match against Jabeur was instructive; Keys had never beaten her, lost the first set at love and the first eight games overall -- and yet found a way to win.

And while her playing style might not suggest it, Keys is solid on clay. She reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2018, won Charleston in 2019 and was a finalist at 2016 Rome. That eight-year gap between semifinal appearances is the longest between consecutive WTA Tour 1000 semifinals since the format was introduced in 2009.

The wild card here is the altitude. It makes for a more charged atmosphere than the sedate red-clay courts in Rome and Paris. Sabalenka, another power player, has won here twice in the past three years. Why not Keys?

The last time they played, at Cincinnati in 2022, Keys won in straight sets.

No.2 Aryna Sabalenka vs. No.4 Elena Rybakina, 9:30 p.m.

The case for Sabalenka

For a player seeking her third Madrid title in four years, Sabalenka has been living dangerously.

She needed three sets to subdue Magda Linette in her first match, three more to get past wild card Robin Montgomery in the second and three again in a tenacious comeback against Danielle Collins in the Round of 16. That ended a 15-match win streak and sent her into the quarterfinals against Andreeva.

On Wednesday, Sabalenka was again in championship form. She won 38 of her 52 service points and did not face a break point. Sabalenka thrives in this rare air, as evidenced by her 79 forehand winners and 24 aces -- both tournament highs.

To those who might doubt her, consider this: She’s won 10 straight matches in Madrid. The other three women to do that (no last names necessary) were Serena, Maria and Simona.

Sabalenka has rounded into form just in time, for Rybakina will be a handful. Sabalenka holds a 5-3 head-to-head advantage -- but they’ve never met on clay.

Sabalenka knows what she’s getting into against Rybakina.

“So far she’s doing an incredible job,” Sabalenka told reporters. “I’m impressed by the consistency she’s bringing on court. That’s really something amazing. I’m super happy for her.”

Of the head-to-head, Sabalenka said, “When I was winning, I was focusing on myself and I was staying really aggressive on those key moments. When she was winning, she was more aggressive than me, and I was trying to kind of save myself in those moments.

“So I think the main key for me is just to focus on myself and to stay aggressive no matter what.”

The case for Rybakina

The 24-year-old who represents Kazakhstan has won a tour-leading 30 matches and says she’s feeling tired. This, of course, is what happens when you consistently get to the end of tournaments.

This might lead people to think that Sabalenka should be favored in this, but take a closer look at the numbers. The theatrics against Putintseva were merely a continuation of a remarkable trend. Rybakina has won her last 13 three-set matches -- the very definition of clutch. She did it four times in Miami on the way to the final, three times in a title run in Stuttgart and now once in Madrid … that’s eight times in 14 matches.

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66.7% Win 6
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33.3% Win 3
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“Yeah, in the third set [against Putintseva] it was very quick when I started to lose these three games in a row, 5-2 down,” Rybakina said afterward. “After that, I think I just didn’t have any more emotions, no frustration or nothing. I was just going for every point. Was trying to do what I was supposed to do, and then whatever happens happened.”

Rybakina is the first player to win 12 straight deciding sets since Naomi Osaka in 2019-20. This is already her sixth semifinal of the year and she’s seeking a sixth final.

Lost in all of that excitement was the fact that this was Rybakina’s 16th straight victory on clay. She’s undefeated for one year and three days, going back to last year’s second-round loss to Anna Kalinskaya in Madrid.

No one else left can say that.