Zverev, Sabalenka reign in Spain

 - Reem Abulleil

A statement week from both in Madrid gives them a huge boost ahead of Roland-Garros

aryna Sabalenka Madrid 2021©Antoine Couvercelle / FFT

So often in tennis, there is no time for celebration, as players pick up a trophy and almost immediately shift their focus to their next tournament and begin plotting for their upcoming conquest.

Over the weekend, Alexander Zverev and Aryna Sabalenka claimed confidence-boosting titles at the Madrid Open, with the former outlasting an in-form Matteo Berrettini 6-7(8), 6-4, 6-3 and the latter avenging her recent defeats to world No.1 Ashleigh Barty by squeezing past the Australian 6-0, 3-6, 6-4.

It was the second title success of the year for each of the two champions and it only made them hungry for more.

“At the end of the day I just won a Masters. It's my fourth one. I'm happy with that. That's for me one of the most important things right now. Obviously I want to be happy for about 30 seconds, then obviously Rome is next. There are still big tournaments coming up,” said the sixth-ranked Zverev, who has an opening-round bye in the Italian capital this week and awaits the winner of the clash between Hugo Dellien and Adrian Mannarino.

Best prep for RG

Zverev put together a statement run in Madrid that included three consecutive top-10 victories over Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem and Berrettini.

The 24-year-old German, who now owns 15 career titles, is the first non-Big Four player to win the same Masters 1000 tournament twice since Andy Roddick claimed a second Miami crown back in 2010.

Zverev, a finalist at the US Open last season, has reached the fourth round or better on his last three visits to Roland-Garros but has yet to make it past the quarter-finals. He is hoping his exploits in Madrid will strengthen his chances on Parisian clay later this month.

“It's extremely important. I think the clay-court season, also to do well at Roland-Garros, you need to be playing well during the clay-court season. That is in a way important for me, as well,” stated Zverev, who now owns four Masters 1000 crowns.

‘I deserve to be here’

For Berrettini, Madrid confirmed what the tennis world already knew; which is that the Italian can be a force to be reckoned with on the big stage.

The 25-year-old was contesting his first Masters 1000 final, and pushed Zverev all the way before succumbing in three sets.

“I know and I feel that I can play this kind of tennis, this kind of level, I deserve to be here. When I play and I use my weapons in the right way, all the players are struggling. This is something that makes me confident for the future,” said the ninth-ranked Berrettini, who is already a title winner on clay this season, having lifted the trophy in Belgrade last month.

Sweet revenge

Meanwhile, Sabalenka hit a new milestone on Monday as she rose to a career-high No.4 in the world on the back of her triumph in Madrid.

The 23-year-old Belarusian snapped Barty’s 16-match winning streak on red clay and also ended the Queenslander’s run of 10 consecutive victories over top-10 opposition.

Sabalenka had lost to Barty in the Stuttgart final in the previous week as well as in the Miami quarter-finals but is now 4-4 in career meetings with the 2019 Roland-Garros champion.

She has now collected 10 career singles titles, with Madrid being her first non-hard court success.

Sabalenka credits her shift in attitude towards clay for her great results on the surface so far this year (she is 10-1 on clay heading into Rome) and says it was all about accepting the fact that she’ll have to endure longer rallies on the red dirt, compared to hard courts or grass, and that she has to be physically ready for it.

“Just something changes in my mind for the clay court for this year. I'm not really scared of this surface anymore,” Sabalenka told reporters in Madrid.

“I don't know what's going to happen in Rome or in Paris. I'll make sure that I'll be there 100 per cent on. I'll fight for every point. This is what I can promise you. But I cannot say what's going to happen.”

New heights

Sabalenka has been one of the most consistent players since the tour restarted from its five-month hiatus last year. Madrid was her third final of the year and her fourth title since October, and she has now cracked the top-five for the first time.

“That's unbelievable. That's crazy. I'm really happy with this improvement. There is still a lot of things to improve. Of course I'm really happy, but I'm also not really focusing on the ranking. I'm more focusing on my game,” she said.

“No.4, this is not No.1. There is still lot of things to work on and to improve.”