It should occur regularly but rarely has in the last eight seasons – the meeting of the women’s No. 1 and 2 ranked players in a final.
But at the 2023 Mutua Madrid Open, it transpired that the current top two players, Iga Świątek and Aryna Sabalenka, would face each other in the championship match.
Firstly, there was the withdrawal before the tournament of No. 4 ranked/seeded Ons Jabeur, with a calf injury, cleared the way. She was the defending champion.
Of the other top ten seeds, Elena Rybakina and three time Madrid champion Petra Kvitova lost in the second round and Caroline Garcia and Coco Gauff lost in the third. Only Jessica Pegula who made the quarters, losing to Veronika Kudemetova, and Maria Sakkari who surpassed her seeding to reach the semis but lost to Sabalenka, held firm.
The main disrupter of seeds was Egyptian Mayar Sherif, ranked 59. For most of the time in Madrid, she played the exhilarating tennis of which she is capable, and which would easily see her enter the top ten if she could produce it consistently.
After benefitting from the first round retirement of Camila Giorgi at one set all, she beat No. 30 seed Anhelina Kalinina and 5th seed Caroline Garcia, both in straight sets.
Then she moved onto Elise Mertens, seeded 24. In the first set, Sherif showed her variety and gumption. She served the set out to love for a 6-4 result. Then, her great play just evaporated. She lost the second set 0-6 as she failed to win a solitary point on her second serve and only 36% on her first.
Recovering to win the first game of the final set, Sherif was then told that a point she had actually won would be replayed. Sherif briefly argued with the umpire before deciding to redirect her energy. She returned to the baseline and took the replayed point with a defiant smash.
At 2-1, she got three break points and an angled dink volley got that break for her. She read the play so well – her anticipation was exceptional.
Sherif had played some great drop shots but serving for the match at 5-3, for once she faltered with the shot and the match was now back on serve.
She took a medical time out for treatment on her lower back and returned to break serve and take the match in 174 minutes. The fact she had hit 29 forehand winners is obviously only part of the story of her dynamic play.
Asked after the match if she would prefer to play Andreeva or Sabalenka in her quarter final, an overjoyed Sherif replied, “I don’t care at this point. Just enjoy the moment. Keep going and playing the way I’m playing, maybe improve the next match a few things. But it doesn’t matter, as long as I enjoy and I do my job on the court, it doesn’t matter.”
Her opponent was to be Sabalenka. Sherif’s election to receive serve paid off as she forced three break points. Amazingly, all six points won by Sherif in this first game were courtesy of unforced errors by Sabalenka.
Sherif then hit the lines for 2-0. Sabalenka couldn’t find her rhythm and was broken again for 1-4.
By the time Sherif led 5-1, Sabalenka had managed just 13 points alongside 12 unforced errors. A great serve smacked down the middle followed by a powerful angled forehand got Sherif the set, 6-2.
The second set began with four consecutive breaks of serve before Sabalenka put her foot down for 6-2. She took the third set 6-1 as Sherif ran out of steam.
Still, Sherif had redeemed herself after a difficult season last year, where she need two months off with injury after giving a walkover to Tamara Zidansek in the second round at Roland Garros.
This had been her debut in the Madrid main draw after being was knocked out in 2022 qualifying. And her ranking has improved to its highest at 43.
Mirra Andreeva was another disrupter. She had shown so much talent in the Australian Open Juniors’ final in January. After losing to Alina Korneeva in three hours and 18 minutes, Andreeva was inconsolable but she had made a statement about her skill and tenacity.
Now in Madrid, she got past Leylah Fernanadez 6-3 6-4, before pushing through Beatriz Haddad Maia, the 13th seed, 7-6(8) 6-3.
Then she knocked off Magda Linette, seeded 17, for just 3 and 3.
As with Sherif, Andreeva was vanquished by Sabalenka, this time 6-3 6-1.
Coming into the final, Sabalenka’s toughest match had been the one against Sherif – when she dropped her only set – which she still won easily in the end.
Świątek’s biggest test was from Ekaterina Alexandrova. She had a match point in the second set but lost it in a tiebreak and needed a third set.
Despite the rarity of 1 vs 2 finals on the women’s tour, these two opponents played the only other occurrence this year; the Stuttgart final just 13 days ago. On that occasion Świątek won, though the Madrid clay plays faster than Stuttgart and Sabalenka won Madrid in 2021.
A robot insect brought the tennis ball cans onto the Madrid court for the final. Chair umpire Kader Nouni looked slightly nervous to remove the cans from the insect’s grip.
Sabalenka led the first set 4-3 on serve. Two big unforced errors from Świątek saw her down 15-40 but a wild error from Sabalenka meant she missed that break point. But she got the break when Świątek made another unforced error. So at 5-3, Sabalenka served it out with great play and the assistance of yet another unforced error from her opponent.
In the second set, Świątek became more aggressive and went 3-0 up before Sabalenka came creeping back. Świątek held for 4-3 and broke as she took her returns earlier. She served it out 6-3.
The third set mirrored the second as a 3-0 lead, this time Sablenka’s, was drawn back to 3-3 when Świątek broke to love with the gift of a double fault. But, it was just a hiccup by Sabalenka as she powered though the next games and clinched the set 6-3, despite Świątek managing to save two match points.
Afterwards, the champion gave credit to her opponent, “I know that it’s always battles against her. It’s always really great matches.
“To have this win, especially on clay, that’s something unbelievable.”
So far in 2023, it’s one win each in the head to head for Świątek and Sabalenka and may their rivalry continue in many more finals.
Title photo by Atilano Garcia