Another episode of Swiatek against Sabalenka

by Simon Zeitler
wta rivalry

And here we are again – just as in Madrid two weeks ago, the WTA Masters final in Rome is another episode of Iga Swiatek against Aryna Sabalenka. The two top stars had a bit of different paths into yet another matchup, but their rivalry seems to get more and more intense.

What happened in Madrid?

When we wrote about the final in Madrid, we already anticipated the victory of the World No. 1, but the final there turned out to be a lot closer than we thought. Iga Swiatek started out very strong and kept her opponent moving, which will always be key against Sabalenka. But as the match progressed, the Belarussian became more and more dominant and was putting pressure on Swiatek. After three very close sets, the Polish No.1 came out on top by virtue of a 9:7 tiebreaker, pretty much the closest possible outcome.

The WTA already dubbed the matchup “El Clasico” in tribute to the Spanish football classic between Madrid and Barcelona and it was one that you did not want to miss. Both players were trying to get the upper hand, sticking close to the baseline and being the aggressor whenever possible. At the end, there wasn’t a clearly better player to name, so the Madrid final would indicate another close final.

Their way in Rome and what to expect

The tournament in Rome so far went about as perfect as can be for Iga Swiatek again. She has not lost a set yet, her semifinal against Coco Gauff was competitive yet comfortable and it seems that her tennis is peaking and she will be one of the odds favorites at the French Open. The three-time Roland Garros champion surely targets another Slam on her favorite surface, and it seems that she is well on her way. 

Building on her solid performance in Madrid, where she seemed to get a bit rushed at times against Sabalenka, she looks even stronger in Rome. She is even closer to the baseline, her serve and returns are on point, and she could overpower all opponents so far. Her only problem? It looked pretty similar in Madrid, but her rival Sabalenka still had an answer to almost all challenges there.

Aryna Sabalenka had a bit more of work to do in Rome. This partly is due to her stronger draw in early rounds, Volynets and Svitolina really took it to her, but also partly because she looked a bit more tired after Madrid. Reportedly, she had to overcome some illness in earlier rounds and was close to withdrawing. But she battled it out against those players and beat both Ostapenko and Collins in straight set victories.

Her serve looks as big as ever, the groundstrokes are dialed in, so she seems set up for another matchup with Iga Swiatek. Sabalenka strives when her opponent gets pushed back and overpowered and has recently included more and more elements into her game, such as dropshots and volleys. Against Swiatek, I expect another match of hard-hitting baseline tennis with the decisive factor being who can stick to the baseline and make the other player react.

Another Swiatek win?

Sabalenka in Rome

With the Madrid final win, Iga increased her head-to-head lead to 7-3 and could win her third Rome Masters title this weekend. Given that this is also the last match before Roland Garros for her, she will be especially poised to make it a good one. She now holds a 70+ % win rate on clay against top-10 players, which is a pretty incredible stat. An in-form Swiatek, on clay and close to her favorite tournament seems hard to beat for anyone, even Sabalenka.

Aryna herself seems to be relaxed going into this one. Her expectations with illness and injury weren’t too high and she stated herself in interviews, that she was surprised to even make the final and reach this level. Her number one focus will be to get to Paris healthy and ready, with the final in Rome being the last test and maybe not her ultimate goal. Her last matches seemed comfortable, with her hit-or-miss style going her way in most situations. But she still comes in the underdog, as her opponent is the dominant player of our time on the women’s tour.

And this gets also reflected by the odds in the sportsbooks – Swiatek is the clear favorite at 1.27, with Sabalenka regarded the underdog at 3.70. And I would go along with those, even if I was pleasantly surprised more than once by Sabalenka’s level this week. A straight-set victory for Iga seems the most likely outcome but expect Sabalenka to hit every shot as hard as she can and challenge the Polish favorite for her money in every way.

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