For World No. 1 Barty, The Growth Never Stops

Ashleigh Barty (photo: @MutuaMadridOpen/Twitter)

MADRID/WASHINGTON, May 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Saturday evening’s Mutua Madrid Open women’s singles final between World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and World No. 7 and Aryna Sabalenka marks this third time in the last five weeks that the two Top 10 players have squared off.

Barty beat Sabalenka in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, on a hard-court surface in late March. Then, the Aussie prevailed in the title match of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix on indoor red clay in Stuttgart, Germany, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, last month. Barty leads their career head-to-head 4-3. As current rivalries in women’s tennis go, this has developed into one of the best.

This is Barty’s fourth final of 2021 and she’s won all three of her previous ones this season, the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne, Miami and Stuttgart. She’s 11-5 in career finals. Meanwhile, Sabalenka is into her third final after having won the season-opener in Abu Dhabi and finishing runner up to Barty in Stuttgart. She’s 9-5 in career finals.

Seeded fifth in Madrid, Sabalenka has given up just 18 games over five matches en route to the final, while Barty is currently enjoying a remarkable 16-match winning streak on red clay. Regardless of the outcome, Barty will remain ranked No. 1 in the WTA rankings while Sabalenka will break into the Top Five next week.

After Sabalenka’s 6-2, 6-3 semifinal victory over Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Thursday, the Belarusian was asked what it would take to beat Barty. She pondered the question for a brief moment, then said: “Physically, I have to be ready for this match. Yeah, she’s No. 1. She’s great. I played her in Stuttgart. It’s not easy game. I will do everything I can to prepare myself as good as I can. Yeah, just looking forward to this battle.”

When it was suggested by a reporter after Barty’s 6-4, 6-3 semifinal win Thursday against 62nd-ranked wild card Paula Badosa of Spain that winning obviously breeds confidence, Barty responding by saying:

“I think a lot of the confidence I’ve gained this year was from the work that I’d done with my team prior to even playing my first match.”

The top-seeded Barty will enter the Mutua Madrid final with a WTA-best 25-3 win-loss record. She’s won nine straight matches. Twice in Madrid she’s gone three sets to win and three times in Stuttgart she lost the first set before rallying to win each time.

“Without a doubt, you grow with each match that you play, every opportunity you get to try something new or try and rectify a few mistakes that you made in previous matches. That’s all learning,” Barty said.

“I think the confidence comes from the practice and the preparation. Then the match is the opportunity to go out there and hone your craft. I think with more matches that you play, it’s always a different opponent, different conditions. I think there are so many different variables in tennis, that’s the challenge, just trying to bring your best regardless of those conditions, regardless of who you’re playing, what surface, whether it’s windy, cold, rainy, whatever it is, trying to adapt to that as best as you can. I feel like we’ve had a really good balance of that this year.

“Every day, regardless of whether i win or lose a match, Tyz (Barty’s coach Craig Tyzzer) and I are analyzing. We chat about the match straightaway afterwards. Sometimes when the emotions are high, which is what is necessary, you need to have those crucial conversations.

“For us, the growth never stops. When the growth stops, the game stops for me. It’s a massage part of me, always trying to get better every single day.”

Thoughts from the last four on the men’s semifinals

Saturday’s men’s singles semifinals will match No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem against No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev, followed by No. 8 seed Matteo Berrettini against unseeded Casper Ruud.

Here’s what each said in press on Friday:

• Alexander Zverev: “[It is] definitely one of the biggest wins of my career so far, especially on clay against Rafa. It is the toughest thing to do in our sport. Beating him in his house, in Spain, is incredible but the tournament is not over yet. …

“I know that I can do it [against Dominic]. Everyone remembers the US Open final that we played. I remember it certainly and it is still going to be in the back of my mind when we play. I am looking forward to the match.”

• Dominic Thiem: “I was just expecting to hopefully play one or two good matches here against top opponents. Now, I’m into the semifinals and facing Sascha. That’s amazingly good to get at least four matches [at the] top level, but it’s also a big surprise for me. [I] definitely didn’t expect that.”

• Casper Ruud: “It still feels like I’m very new to this level, making the [late] stages at this level. I think now I’ve proven also to myself that it’s just not a one-hit wonder when I did my first [Masters 1000 semifinal] in Rome and the second one in Monte-Carlo. It felt even more like it was a new feeling. This is the third time. I feel more confident in myself. Knowing that I’ve been there twice before I think will hopefully help.”

• Matteo Berrettini: “There were days where I wasn’t really feeling into practice because I felt like there was a lot of work to be done. Sometimes, I was feeling kind of unlucky that I got injured again. It was just tough. But then, I came back stronger in Belgrade. For here, I proved to myself that I’m strong inside.”

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

After Rafael Nadal beat Alexei Popyrin to reach Friday’s quarterfinals, Tennis TourTalk asked the World No. 2 if he felt the future of men’s tennis is in good hands. After all, he’s played – and beaten – four of the bright young talents of the men’s game: Carlos Alcaraz and Popyrin this week in Madrid and last year at the French Open he beat Jannik Sinner and Sebastian Korda.

“Of course. But at the same time always the future of tennis is in good hands because always going to be Grand Slam winners, always going to be Masters 1000 winners. That the thing, no?” said Nadal.

“Today is true that there is a lot of young, good players. Is something normal that is happening. And, yeah, I’m excited that at my age (34), I am able to keep playing against all of them. They are good. They are talented. They have a great future, no?

“For me is amazing to be where I am with my age competing with them still.”