Ash and Aryna are at it again

 - Reem Abulleil

The duo are set to face off for a third time in five weeks as they reach the Madrid final

Aryna Sabalenka Madrid 2021©Antoine Couvercelle / FFT

As we approach the halfway mark of this clay-court season building up to Roland-Garros, Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka have separated themselves from the pack as top contenders on the terre battue as they get set to square off in a final for a second consecutive tournament.

Barty and Sabalenka will fight for the Madrid title on Saturday, in what will be a rematch of their Stuttgart final less than two weeks ago.

It’s a third meeting within the last five weeks between the in-form competitors and it will be their eighth encounter overall.

Barty, the Australian world No.1, enters the clash riding a 16-match winning streak on red clay dating back to her title triumph at Roland-Garros in 2019.

On a roll

The Queenslander spent nearly a year off tour due to travel restrictions during the pandemic but has been in tremendous form ever since she returned to action in February, clinching three trophies in Melbourne, Miami and Stuttgart and is now going for her fourth.

“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,” explained Barty on Thursday following her straight-sets win over Paula Badosa in the semi-finals.

“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. 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.”

The 25-year-old Barty owns a tour-leading 25 match-wins this season, with Sabalenka just behind her with 23.

An exciting rivalry

Sabalenka, the world No.7, is into her third final of the season and is gunning for a second title in 2021. The fiery Belarusian has yet to drop a set this week at the Caja Magica and has made it to the championship match at the loss of just 18 games through five rounds.

While she is 0-2 against Barty this year, their head-to-head has been a competitive saga that sees Sabalenka trail her familiar foe 3-4 in career meetings.

“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, I’m just looking forward for this battle,” said the 22-year-old.

Mastering the dirt

Clay has never been necessarily the favourite surface for Barty or Sabalenka but the pair have certainly proven their credentials on the red dirt in recent years.

In 2019, Barty managed to utilise her intelligent and crafty game, combined with her great serve, to conquer the Parisian clay and reign supreme at Roland-Garros.

Sabalenka has yet to make it past the third round in the French capital but her impressive 9-1 record on clay so far this season suggests a breakthrough could be just around the corner.

“I think my game has improved a lot on the clay court. For sure it's give me some confidence, yeah. But there's still so many things to work on. I'm just really happy with my level here in Madrid,” said Sabalenka.

Serving extravaganza

Conditions in Madrid lend themselves to the big servers, so it comes as no surprise that Barty and Sabalenka are the two women to have made it to the final.

Both players are at the top in most of the serve categories for the season with Barty sitting at the summit of the service points won leaderboard (64.3% success rate) and Sabalenka close behind in fourth place (62.4% success rate).

They’re both in the top three on the aces leaderboard in 2021, with Barty at the helm and Sabalenka two spots adrift.

Barty has struck a tournament-leading 35 aces so far this week in Madrid but is well aware of the firepower her opponent is expected to bring in the final.

“She's played an exceptional week thus far. She's been extremely dominant from the scorelines I have seen,” Barty said of Sabalenka.

“For her, it's serving and first shot, being able to control the point. That gives her freedom on return games to be more aggressive and to really knuckle down. The balance for her must be really good this week.

“The challenge is to get yourself into a position where she's not controlling the court. It's about neutralising as best you can for me, changing the pace, being aggressive when I have to be, running when I have to as well. It's a massive challenge.”

A must-see final

Madrid is where Barty first felt like she can be a serious threat on clay as she recalls a close defeat to Simona Halep two years ago in the quarter-finals at the Caja Magica as a turning point in her journey on the surface.

For Sabalenka, her third-round loss to Ons Jabeur at Roland-Garros last fall was also a key moment. The Belarusian went on a tear after that defeat, amassing a 15-match winning streak – including three back-to-back titles – and she wouldn’t lose another match until February.

Her form is hitting similar heights at the moment, and Saturday’s final promises to be a scorcher.

“I think from the side it looks like everything is going my way. Some games I didn't feel my serve. Some games something wasn't working. It's always part of the process. But I'm really happy that from the side it looks like everything is going my way,” explained Sabalenka on Thursday.

“I don't know, I’m just focused on my game, focused on the things which I have to do on the court. I'm not really focusing on the score or something else. Like all my focus is in the point, in the moment. That's was working quite well so far.”