Madrid: Swiatek stars in thriller, Rublev pulls off miracle

WTA's top two put on a three-hour show in epic Madrid final

Iga Swiatek / Trophée Madrid 2024©Antoine Couvercelle / FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

Iga adds Madrid trophy to her clay-court collection

“Well, who is going to say now that women's tennis is boring, right?” asked Iga Swiatek just moments after she and Aryna Sabalenka produced a three-hour 11-minute masterpiece in the Madrid Open final on Saturday.

Swiatek rallied back from a 1-3 deficit in the third set, and saved three match points in total – two at 5-6 and one in the deciding tiebreak – before she completed a heroic 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(7) victory to end Sabalenka’s title defence in the Spanish capital in spectacular fashion.

Madrid was the only big clay-court title that had eluded Swiatek so far and the Polish world No.1 had to dig deep to avenge her final defeat to Sabalenka from the year before at the Caja Magica and finally rule on Spanish clay.

“I think it was the most intense and crazy final I played,” declared Swiatek, who improved her head-to-head against Sabalenka to 7-3.

The three-time Roland-Garros champion admitted she felt tight in the first two hours of the match, and kept waiting for the moment she would finally loosen up.

She drew inspiration from another Roland-Garros champion during those tense moments in the final.

“I was surprised that in the third set I felt the best mentally. Because I actually felt like I need to dig through for these two hours and it didn't really work. I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, am I going to feel a little bit more loose soon?’ It didn't really happen, and then after two hours, it did.

“One thing that came through my mind was actually that I think Rafa (Nadal) had a couple of matches like that.

“I remember exactly when he was playing (Daniil) Medvedev in Australia (Open final in 2022) and it clicked for him. It felt like it. He also struggled for a bit of time with some, he was tense and I think stressed. That kind of gave me hope that maybe it will click, even after two hours.”

Swiatek is the youngest player since Caroline Wozniacki in 2012 to capture 20 WTA titles, and the 22-year-old now owns nine WTA 1000 trophies.

She has won her last seven consecutive finals and joins Elena Rybakina with a tour-leading 30 match-wins in 2024.

‘Pretty special moment’

Before the start of the tournament, Swiatek revealed that Garbine Muguruza was the closest thing she had to an idol from the women’s game – a notion she had to shake when they actually became on-court rivals.

In a fitting turn of events, Muguruza, who announced two weeks ago she was officially retiring from tennis, is the one who handed Swiatek the Madrid Open trophy during the ceremony on Saturday.

“We were thinking how I should celebrate,” said Swiatek about the words she exchanged with Muguruza on the podium.

“I just told her that she seems happy, and I was happy to see being happy. She's a really nice person, so it was nice that she was the one that gave me the trophy. Pretty special moment.”

Sabalenka reestablishes ‘Big Three’ order

Before the start of the Madrid Open, Sabalenka said she felt the ‘Big Three’ of herself, Swiatek and Elena Rybakina, had become more of a ‘Big Two’ in recent months, as her level dipped after she successfully defended her Australia Open crown in January.

The world No.2 had the perfect response to that feeling. She edged Rybakina in a third-set tiebreak in the semi-finals before narrowly losing to Swiatek in the championship match.

Sabalenka spent over 12 hours on court in Madrid this fortnight, with five of her six matches going to three sets.

While she admits losing such a close match after holding three match points against Swiatek stings, she is proud of her efforts this tournament and is looking forward to keep up the momentum heading into Rome next week.

“I really want to see many more finals against her (Swiatek),” said Sabalenka.

“I really hope that we'll be able to keep the level or increase the level every year and just to be one of those three, that's amazing. I'm really happy to be one of these ‘Big Three’, as you call us.

“It's really motivating me a lot to keep working and to keep improving myself just to be there and get as many wins against them as I can.”

Aryna Sabalenka & Iga Swiatek / Madrid 2024©Antoine Couvercelle / FFT

Rublev’s ‘proud’ moment

Andrey Rublev arrived to the Spanish capital riding a four-match losing streak he put together over a six-week period.

The 26-year-old then proceeded to win his next six matches in Madrid, knocking out world No.3 Carlos Alcaraz and No.13 Taylor Fritz along the way, before overcoming former world No.6 Felix Auger-Aliassime in a two-hour 48-minute final.

Rublev later revealed he did all that while suffering from a mysterious illness that gave him a fever, a sore throat, headaches, and an inflamed toe.

At some point during the tournament, he was eating baby food because his throat was so inflamed, he couldn’t swallow properly.

He says doctors gave him “anaesthesia” to numb his foot and he was playing while on painkillers and medication to make it through his matches.

“This is the title I am most proud of,” said Rublev after picking up the second Masters 1000 title of his career.

“If you knew what I have been through the last nine days, you would not imagine that I would be able to win a title.”

He now moves up one spot in the rankings, back to No.6 in the world, and is No.5 in the ATP Race to Turin.

‘Weird’ week for Felix

Auger-Aliassime became the first Canadian to reach a Masters 1000 final on clay last week but it happened in bizarre fashion.

Three of his six matches en route to the final involved a retirement or a walkover (Jakub Mensik in the third round, Jannik Sinner in the quarter-finals, Jiri Lehecka in the semi-finals) and in the final against Rublev, Auger-Aliassime began cramping in both legs early in the third set.

He started the tournament ranked 35 in the world – his ranking dipped due to knee problems last year – and has returned to the top 20 as a result of his efforts in Madrid.

“Obviously it was a weird week with all the walkovers, but I'm going to head into next week with the same confidence I came in this week actually, this tournament, I felt like I could play well,” said Auger-Aliassime.

“Rome is the same thing. I feel like it's a tournament where I have had good memories, as well, in the past. I'm going to try to just keep going, keep doing the things I'm doing well, not put too much pressure, expectations that I need to be perfect, and enjoy the days and learn from the downs. Stay cool and take it easy.”