APRIL 21 - MAY 4, 2025

Rybakina passes opening test to book Sherif showdown

Elena Rybakina prefers to play on faster surfaces, but judging by her results so far this season, it’s obvious that irrespective of her locale, the odds of her making it to finals weekend are always pretty high.

The world No.4 has reached at least the quarter-finals in seven of the eight tournaments she has contested thus far in 2024, and has made the final or better in four of her last five events.

She arrived in Madrid fresh off a title run on indoor clay in Stuttgart and picked up a fifth consecutive victory on the red dirt on Friday with a 6-4, 6-3 performance against Italy’s Lucia Bronzetti.

Rybakina could have gotten a rematch of the Stuttgart final in her upcoming third round in Madrid, but the 25th-seeded Marta Kostyuk fell 6-2, 7-5 to last year’s quarter-finalist Mayar Sherif.

It was a relatively quick turnaround for Rybakina to make the switch from indoor clay in Stuttgart to outdoor conditions at the Caja Magica, but the Kazakhstani big-hitter has accumulated enough experience transitioning from one tournament to the other while consistently making deep runs at every event.

“I had four days, so I had a day off and also I tried to practise a little bit. It’s not easy to get used to the conditions so quick. That’s why I think today the win is also important to feel better on the court for the next matches,” said Rybakina, who leads the tour this season with three titles, five finals, and 27 match-wins.

“It’s not easy for sure to prepare yourself mentally because we have a lot of tournaments. For now, I’m going quite deep and we’re travelling a lot but I’m managing. I’m really happy and hopefully I can continue like this.”

Rybakina let a 2-0 lead slip early on against Bronzetti but a vital break of serve in game 10 gave the 2022 Wimbledon champion the opening set in 38 minutes.

The pair traded breaks in the first two games of the second frame but it was Rybakina who upped her aggression on return to surge ahead 3-1.

Despite building a healthy lead, it wasn’t all smooth-sailing for Rybakina, who faced stiff competition from Bronzetti.

“Nothing is easy today, accept it,” Rybakina’s coach Stefano Vukov reminded her between points.

Rybakina never relinquished her advantage as she punched her ticket to the third round for just the second time in four appearances in the Spanish capital.

Speaking to reporters after the match, Rybakina explained how the altitude in Madrid takes some getting used to and that she’s trying to add more spin to her shots due to the fact her traditional flat-hitting is less effective in these conditions.

While faster surfaces give her more free points, thanks to her booming serve and huge groundstrokes, slower conditions have also been kind to Rybakina in the past. One of her early breakthroughs came on clay at Roland Garros in 2021, when she beat Serena Williams to reach the first Grand Slam quarter-final of her career.

“Of course (that run) gave me belief on the surface, and actually my first WTA title win was on clay also in Bucharest. I know I can play well on clay but it’s going to take more patience, it’s a lot about the physique,” said the 24-year-old.

‘I felt like I own the place’

Rybakina’s next opponent, Egypt’s Sherif, adores the clay and took out four top-40 players – including fifth-seeded Caroline Garcia – en route to the quarter-finals at the Caja Magica 12 months ago.

Sherif snapped a 6-match losing streak on Wednesday in the Madrid opening round against Lauren Davis – her first tour win of the year – and followed that up with an impressive straight-sets dismissal of Kostyuk on Friday.

Sherif and Kostyuk engaged in some brutal rallies on Court 7 but the Cairene remained committed to the cause as she moved back into the Madrid third round.

“I was telling myself, ‘You’re so tough, you’re so tough, much tougher than her, this is your place, this is your court’, that’s what I was telling myself all the time,” said Sherif, who is the highest-ranked Egyptian player in tennis history.

“Because I know that playing on clay, playing here in Madrid, is one of the best conditions that I can play in and I felt very comfortable and I felt like I own the place.”

Sherif lost in straight sets to Rybakina in their only previous meeting, in Cincinnati in 2022, but the Egyptian feels she can cause some damage in these clay conditions, and can draw confidence from her big wins from last year at the Caja Magica.

“I feel like on clay it’s more important if that player knows how to play on clay or not, and I feel like I’m one of the toughest people to play here and that just gives me a lot of confidence. So I’ll take that to the next match and I’ll see what Rybakina can do against me,” said Sherif.