APRIL 22 - MAY 5, 2024

Sabalenka’s birthday wish: A second trophy in Madrid

Aryna Sabalenka is hoping for a double celebration this weekend as she looks to mark her 25th birthday on Friday with a second Madrid title triumph.

Sabalenka, a champion in the Spanish capital in 2021, continues to be a force to be reckoned with on tour this season as she stormed into her fifth final of the year – from seven events contested – with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Maria Sakkari at the Caja Magica on Thursday.

The reigning Australian Open champion awaits the winner of the other semi-final between world No.1 Iga Swiatek and No.12 seed Veronika Kudermetova.

Should Sabalenka get Swiatek, it would be a rematch of the final they played in Stuttgart 11 days ago, which the Polish top seed won in straight sets.

“I think it’s the best gift I could give to myself, I’m super happy to be in the final,” said Sabalenka.

“I’m going to do everything to prepare myself as good as I can for the final and hopefully I can lift this trophy again.”

Sabalenka improved to 6-3 head-to-head against Sakkari and heads into the final with a tour-leading 28 match-wins in 2023.

Will she celebrate her birthday on Friday or wait until after Saturday’s final?

“I’ll focus on my match and then after the match we’re going to go somewhere in a good restaurant to celebrate my birthday, and hopefully celebrate something else,” she said.

Ahead of their showdown, Sakkari described Sabalenka as “the one that is playing the best tennis right now, better than anyone else”, and the world No.2 certainly looked that way as she led 3-0 early in the first set.

Sakkari struck back and dug deep to fend off a slew of break points in game six to eventually level for 3-all.

The Greek world No.9 saved 31 break points through four matches entering the semi-finals and ended up saving five more against Sabalenka in the first set. But it wasn’t enough to halt Sabalenka, who got the break she needed in game 10 to take a one-set lead in 52 minutes.

The No.2 seed kept finding the corners with her crushing groundstrokes and Sakkari was soon trailing 1-5 in the second set, unable to handle her opponent’s pace.

With Sabalenka serving for the victory, Sakkari created two opportunities on her opponent’s serve but she couldn’t capitalise and the contest was over in one hour and 25 minutes.

With a first-serve percentage of 47 and just 1/6 break points converted, Sakkari did not have enough to stop Sabalenka and the Greek is now 0-4 in semi-finals this season and 7-21 at that stage overall (not including United Cup).

Sakkari is aware of her poor record in semi-finals and joked about it in a chat with WTA Insider this week in Madrid, sharing her level-headed perspective on the matter.

“Listen, I’ve lost so many semi-finals and finals that if I don’t see it that way and I keep being hard on myself and don’t joke about it, it’s going to be very tough to overcome,” explained Sakkari.

“It’s my fifth semi-final of the year if you include United Cup. Consistency: that’s part of Maria Sakkari. That’s me. I’ve always had small little steps. Some people do it the easy way, some people do it the hard way.”