APRIL 21 - MAY 4, 2025

Confident Sabalenka eyeing second Madrid crown

Two years ago, Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka engaged in a fun tug of war during the clay-court season as they squared off in back-to-back finals on the red dirt of Stuttgart and Madrid.

Barty had the upper hand in Stuttgart but Sabalenka got her revenge 10 days later, besting the then world No.1 to lift the Mutua Madrid Open trophy – her sole WTA clay-court title to date.

“It meant a lot,” Sabalenka told reporters in Madrid on Tuesday, reflecting on her 2021 triumph at the Caja Magica.

“I proved to myself and I proved to everyone else that I can play on clay courts and I can actually do well on this surface. It was a really important win for me and since then, I’ve really had this strong belief in myself on clay courts.”

Finding that belief on clay required a shift in mentality from Sabalenka. The world No.2 and reigning Australian Open champion is a power player whose game is more naturally suited to hard courts and faster surfaces. But it didn’t take her long to realise a slower and more forgiving surface like clay can have its advantages.

“You have to stay patient, you have to wait for a comfortable shot to hit your winner or just go for powerful hitting, you just have to wait for it, and this is the toughest thing on clay,” she explained.

“Before, I had a different mentality for the clay court, I thought like, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be long rallies, no it’s not my favourite surface’.

“But right now I have a different approach, like I actually have an extra pause to hit my shots, so I’m not under pressure on this surface and I can hit my good shots with the pause, so it gives me extra power actually.”

Since the start of 2021, Sabalenka has clocked a respectable 25-9 win-loss record on clay, picking up a WTA 1000 crown in Madrid and reaching three finals in Stuttgart.

She comes to the Spanish capital this week in a similar situation to 12 months ago: fresh off a final defeat to Iga Swiatek in the Stuttgart final.

The 24-year-old is understandably disappointed to have lost again at the final hurdle, but she insists starting her clay campaign with a runner-up showing can only boost her confidence entering Madrid.

“I think I’m getting better with accepting that I have lost this. It’s happen, it’s in the past, I will learn this lesson and move on,” said Sabalenka.

“Before I used to be really depressed after tough matches, but right now I think I’m a little bit older, so I understand that it’s okay, it happens. I just have to accept it and I just have to learn and improve what didn’t work well today and try better next time.”

Sabalenka has a tricky opener in Madrid against Sorana Cirstea, who defeated the world No.2 in the Miami quarter-finals last month.

But the Belarusian enjoys the conditions at the Caja Magica, and feels the altitude actually helps her game.

“I like to play in Spain, the support here is really good,” said Sabalenka, who started 2023 by winning her first 13 consecutive matches, including a run to a maiden Grand Slam title in Melbourne.

“The courts are a little bit faster than anywhere else, I think because of the altitude the ball flies a little bit faster so I really enjoy playing here and I enjoy the conditions here.”

With a tour-leading 23 victories and two trophies under her belt for the season, Sabalenka is having a statement 2023 so far. But there’s another title she has also been enjoying: the title of ‘Godmother’.

“It sounds even cooler than just a mother, you know?” she said with a laugh.

“I am good friends with the wife of my hitting partner. They asked me and I said, ‘Yes of course’. I feel really good and the kid really loves me. I feel like a mother. And probably because I don’t spend like 24/7 with the kid, it’s not taking a lot of energy from me. It’s helping me relax, recharge and switch off from tennis.”

Looking ahead to the action in Madrid, Swiatek and Sabalenka, the top two seeds, are on collision course for a possible second consecutive final showdown – a scenario that would be reminiscent of that fun mid-season battle between Barty and Sabalenka from two years ago.

Asked what she would do differently if she wanted to conquer Swiatek on the Pole’s beloved clay, Sabalenka said: “Probably I don’t have to get crazy when I have a shorter ball to approach and to start playing my aggressive game, don’t get over-crazy about that shot. Because in the last match I was like, ‘Okay, this is a short ball, I have to do something extra’. So I was overthinking and that’s why I was missing a lot.

“Last match it was about a few service games, my service games, so I just have to not over-rush it, just wait for a better shot to hit my strong, powerful balls.”