MADRID, May 9: Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka stunned world number one Ashleigh Barty to win the Madrid Open for the first time on Saturday and put her success down to losing her fear of playing on clay.
Sabalenka was beaten by Barty in the final in Stuttgart last month but exacted revenge at the Caja Magica, a storming 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 victory to clinch the biggest title of her career.
The 23-year-old has never gone past the fourth round at a Grand Slam but on this evidence she will be among the contenders at the French Open, which starts in Paris later this month.
“She takes the racket out of my hand when she serves the way she did in the first set,” Barty said.
“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.”
This was Sabalenka’s 10th career title but her first on clay and it will see her rise to number four in the world rankings on Monday.
“Before I was too much thinking about clay, that this surface is not for me, that it’s really tough to play, it’s about long rallies,” said Sabalenka.
“Something changed in my mind this year. I’m not really scared of this surface any more.”
Barty was the heavy favourite heading into the final, especially after beating Sabalenka in Stuttgart last month, also on clay, in a match that also went to three sets.
The Australian appeared to have recovered from a chastening opening set, after levelling up in the second and then leading 4-3, 30-15 on Sabalenka’s serve in the decider.
But her opponent never gave in and produced a brilliant finish by winning the last 11 consecutive points to hand Barty her first defeat on red clay since 2019 in Rome.
“To be honest after the final in Stuttgart, I was injured, I couldn’t move and wanted to withdraw,” Sabalenka said on court afterwards.
“But the recovery was good, in four days I feel better and now I’m the champion. It’s been an amazing week.”
Barty will still be one of the favourites at Roland Garros, where the Australian won her first Grand Slam title in 2019.
Her route to the final in Madrid included beating reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek in the round of 16.
After losing the second set 6-0 in Stuttgart, Sabalenka took some revenge by delivering the same punishment to Barty, in a whirlwind opening frame.
Barty was blown away by her opponent’s relentless hitting from the back, especially off the forehand wing, as three breaks sealed the set for Sabalenka, who conceded only four points on serve.
But Barty finally gained a foothold with a break in the first game of the second, a Sabalenka backhand floating long to shift the momentum in her favour.
Sabalenka curled a forehand into the corner to break back but Barty restored her advantage with a volley slapped away and then broke again to seal the set.
Barty threatened to break for much of the decider, including at 4-3, but Sabalenka dug in and then had an opening at 4-4, when a failed drop-shot and double-fault from Barty gave her three break points of her own.
Sabalenka converted the first with a thundering backhand down the line and showed no sign of nerves when serving out, powering into a 40-0 lead and winning on her first match point when a Barty forehand hit the net. (AFP)