May 8, 2021
Aryna Sabalenka produced a performance of breath-taking brilliance to humble world number one Ashleigh Barty in Madrid.
The statuesque Belarusian has never even reached a Grand Slam quarter-final. But watch out Roland Garros.
And get ready Wimbledon 2021!
Old Wimbledon favourite Greg Rusedski admitted: ‘I have never seen anyone hit a ball quite like Sabalenka did in the first set.’
Aryna was simply unplayable and it looked as though she was the top-ranked star on the planet and not Barty.
As it is, Sabalenka is already up to world number four after this dream week. She looks destined to go higher still.
Only a few days ago, Aryna celebrated her 23rd birthday. Such milestones are poignant these days.
Two years ago she lost her father and says she still misses his congratulatory text messages after winning.
This outstanding victory was probably in his memory deep down. But Sabalenka was understandably just too elated to focus on lingering family sadness in her moment of glory.
A laughing Aryna said: ‘Hopefully there will be many more finals to come with Ash. This was amazing and I enjoyed every day here in Madrid.
‘It’s unbelievable that in four days life can feel so good. Thank you so much guys.’
There was no true loser in thus stunning match. Barty still showed why she is a serious contender for Wimbledon 2021.
She had beaten Sabalenka in Miami and Stuttgart. But Madrid was a step too far.
The loveable Aussie usually finds a way these days – but not this time.
Barty said: ‘Congratulations Aryna, you were fantastic and thoroughly deserved to be champion.’
Ashleigh had remained composed in the eye of an early storm to emerge with dignity. And what a first-set storm Sabalenka threw at her.
But fatally Barty failed to convert break points in the decider and then lost concentration just when it mattered.
Sabalenka seized a break with a punishing backhand winner deep into the corner. Then she served out with complete self-assurance when she might have wobbled.
Eight points in succession. No wonder a generous Barty called her ‘amazing’ when they met at the net.
After all the twists and turns, Sabalenka had won 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 to take her tenth and arguably her biggest title.
She now has enough self-belief to feel comfortable in any situation.
Can she take this sort of form into Wimbledon 2021?
Why not? Aryna now has all the weaponry she needs.
But as a winner of the Wimbledon Girls’ title back in the day, Barty has more history at the All England Club.
And history is a pretty good thing to have at the most historic tournament on earth.
Even if she wins Wimbledon 2021 after a bruising fortnight, Barty won’t have to withstand a more devastating opener than she faced in this fascinating final.
The first set had to be seen to be believed. A hurricane against a lamb, it seemed.
Sabalenka looked so relaxed and so powerful that you wondered why she wasn’t a serial Grand Slam winner already.
If nervousness lurked beneath, we weren’t seeing it just yet.
Barty was simply blown away and couldn’t get a foothold at all.
Could this really be the world number one struggling to win a meaningful point?
For the first time in four years, the Australian was handed a bagel in just twenty-five minutes.
At six feet tall, the Belarusian dwarfed her more celebrated opponent and looked in ruthless mood.
She hit her eleven opening-set winners with a ferocity and a roar that showed she meant business.
Sabalenka’s monstrous aces were a minor miracle in what could have been a troubling wind.
Yet her drop shots were subtle and beautiful as she introduced startling light and shade to her game.
But Barty had surrendered sets to Sabalenka before and had still beaten her twice earlier this year.
Ash didn’t panic. Even when she slipped and fell on her way to that first-set thrashing, she still managed a smile.
She knew deep down that Sabalenka couldn’t maintain that stratospheric level of tennis indefinitely.
Sure enough, the tide turned at the start of the second.
Barty achieved the early break and suddenly we knew we were in for a super match.
But Aryna didn’t crumble. She came straight back at the favourite and broke to level at 2-2.
Even so, there was a mounting anxiety in the underdog as Barty assumed fresh control to go 4-2 ahead.
Ashleigh’s defence was astounding. What could so easily have been Sabalenka winners were turned into an incredible affirmation of Barty’s all-round ability.
We were level in sets in the blink of an eye.
Aryna would need to settle and rediscover her mental strength if she were going to compete better in the decider.
That process took most of the third set, in truth. But at the business end of a wonderful match it was the European who summoned the greater fighting spirit.
This is the sort of psychological rollercoaster we can expect at Wimbledon 2021.
This is the type of gladiatorial thriller that will be played out for bigger stakes on the historic green grass of Centre Court this summer.
We can’t wait! How about you?