After winning the Mutua Madrid Open title in 2021 and 2023, Aryna Sabalenka could not complete the hat-trick this year. But despite falling short in Saturday's gripping final, the World No.2 has an increased sense of accomplishment as she heads deeper into the clay-court swing.

"I'm happy with the level I played, with the effort I put into this match and into this week," Sabalenka said after the final, where she held three championship points before narrowly losing to World No.1 Iga Swiatek 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(7). "It's a lot of good things to take out of this tournament, and I think I'm leaving Madrid with positive thoughts."

Sabalenka exits Spain generally content about her game -- but not necessarily about getting another year older.

"I'm going to suffer for a day, and tomorrow I'm leaving to Rome, so I'm going to forget it quickly," Sabalenka said. "It's my birthday tomorrow. I hope I'm going to be in a good mood."

Sabalenka immediately revised that statement: "I'm going to be in a bad mood. I am 26 tomorrow. It sucks."

Just ahead of her latest birthday, Sabalenka came close to becoming only the second woman to win Madrid three times -- Petra Kvitova still stands alone in that stat. Sabalenka knows that only a handful of moments were the difference between victory and defeat.

"In these kind of matches, it's just like a few points," Sabalenka said. "Probably when I broke [Swiatek] in the third set, I should have been more focused on my serve, but at the same time, it's not like I double-faulted. It's just, like, she played great tennis and she broke me back.

"I really want to see many more finals against her. I want to see more wins than losses," Sabalenka said, smiling. "But I really hope that we'll be able to keep the level or increase the level every year."

By returning to the Madrid final, Sabalenka broke out of a relative lull in her results following her successful Australian Open title defense in January.

Sabalenka did not make a final at her next four events, but she broke that duck at one of her happiest hunting grounds. Sabalenka got her Madrid winning streak up to 11 consecutive victories at the tournament before finishing runner-up.

"I think after the Australian Open, I struggled for a couple of months," Sabalenka said. "It's been intense.

"It was tough to find myself back, but I'm super happy that here in Madrid I was able to bring it all together and to be able to get back to my level. I think it's, you know, it only can get better from now on."

Sabalenka needed all of her perseverance to reclaim that level and make it as far as she did. Five of her six matches during the fortnight went the maximum three sets, including a whisker-thin win over Elena Rybakina in the semifinals.

"It was really intense matches, but I actually really enjoyed it," Sabalenka said. "When I'm kind of like facing my down [moments,] every time to bring myself back, I need to go through these tough matches, through these tough fights.

"I was feeling that I'm getting back in track. ... I beat great players here in Madrid. They all have been in incredible shape and I was able to somehow manage to get the wins."

Of course, in tennis, there's always another tournament just around the corner. Sabalenka now sets her sights on winning the other WTA 1000 clay-court event, the Internazionali BNL d'Italia. Sabalenka's best Rome performance was a semifinal run in 2022.

"The first thing comes to my mind, I'm ready for pasta," Sabalenka said with a smile. "It's one of my favorite tournaments. It's such a beautiful facility and beautiful city. I love Rome, and I'm excited to get back there."