May 8, 2021

A Reversal of Fortune

Remember a couple months ago when Aryna Sabalenka came back from losing ten straight games to Sara Sorribes Tormo not just to win the next twelve and the match, but to claim the singles trophy in Ostrava?

Well if that didn't teach us that the 23-year-old can turn around any situation, then perhaps her performance at the Mutua Madrid Open over the last ten days will.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised to see the Belorusian powering through her draws. That recovery in the Czech Republic was part of a fifteen match winstreak between last October and this January. And while Sabalenka has had a couple of losses since, they've mostly come at the hands of truly formidable opponents -- yes there was the surprise upset by Aussie Cinderella Kaia Kanepi, but there were also real battles against the supremely talented Garbiñe Muguruza, Serena Williams, and two straight versus #1 Ashleigh Barty.

Those losses to Barty were important ones. The first this year came in the quarterfinals of Miami, which the Australian would go on to win, cementing her position at the top of the sport and quieting doubters, myself included, who questioned whether she should remain there without having played for nearly a year. The second came in the Stuttgart final, which squelched those who thought Naomi Osaka, laying claim to two Grand Slam titles but having little impact off the hardcourts so far, was more deserving. Had either of those matches gone Sabalenka's way, those doubts about Barty might still exist -- and today's result may not have so sweet.

But as it stood, it was the two winningest players on tour who made it to the final at the Caja Magica. Sabalenka, with 23 victories this season going into Saturday's match, had notched wins over rising star Jessica Pegula and doubles partner Elise Mertens on her way. Meanwhile Barty, with 25, got past the other defending Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek, three-time Madrid champion Petra Kvitova, and surprise semifinalist Paula Badosa. And both had the opportunity to make a real statement as we head into the final stretch of the clay season.

Sabalenka came out of the gate swinging, too, running away with the first set in less than 25 minutes, but as with their other recent matches, Barty wasn't ready to go down without a fight. After trading breaks to start the second, she was able to close it out and force a decider for the title. And while it stayed close in that final set, Sabalenka stunningly broke her opponent at love in the ninth game and then closed it out.

The win earned Sabalenka her tenth career title and her first on clay, and it'll help push her to a career high ranking of #4 in the world, passing Sofia Kenin. It also ended a 16-match win streak Barty had on red clay and a 10-match streak against top ten opponents.

Of course, the real question will come down to what happens on the dirt of Paris -- Sabalenka, for all her strength and ability against the top players in the sport, has never made it past the fourth round at a Major, never past the third at the French Open. I've long thought that that was a streak aching to be broken, and maybe this is the time for it to happen.

After all, if anyone can turn things around, it certainly seems to be Aryna Sabalenka.

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