To steal a pet adage of Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, Aryna Sabalenka is rapidly becoming masterful at the concept of hitting a big shot to a conservative spot – in her case, very big shots that are generating significant results. In ten sets this week at the Mutua Madrid Open, Sabalenka has lost a mere 18 games. Not once has she given up four games in a single set.

In today’s semi, Sabalenka took 64 minutes to beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2, 6-3.  For the second straight time, Sabalenka is in the finals of European clay court tournament, having just gotten that far in Stuttgart nearly two weeks ago. And for the second straight time, Sabalenka will face her stylistic opposite, Ash Barty, who won that Stuttgart final by the rollercoaster score of 3-6, 6-0, 6-3.

“It's not easy game,” Sabalenka said about playing Barty. “I will do everything I can to prepare myself as good as I can. Yeah, just looking forward for this battle.” Sabalenka-Barty has already become a sparkling rivalry, the spring chapters of Stuttgart and Madrid a potential preview of further magic at Roland Garros.

The match with Pavlyuchenkova lacked any such fairy dust. While Sabalenka had zipped along the fast lane to one rapid win after another, the 41st-ranked Pavlyuchenkova ground her way through the side streets versus an impressive array of top 25 opponents -- #23 Madison Keys, #9 Karolina Pliskova, #14 Jennifer Brady, #20 Karolina Muchova. Each of these required extensive physical and mental effort, Pavlyuchenkova employing considerable problem-solving versus a flock of rivals armed with big serves, formidable forehands and a host of speeds and spins.

Not having reached the semis of a tournament since Moscow in October ‘19, Pavlyuchenkova admitted this week how the pandemic has hindered everything from training routines to her knees to the challenges of organizing the best possible support team (including the return of older brother Marina as her coach).


Sabalenka storms into second consecutive clay-court final in Madrid

Sabalenka storms into second consecutive clay-court final in Madrid

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As Pavlyuchenkova said after beating Brady,“Then confidence went obviously down because of all of that. Now, yeah, I had also some tough times, tough draws, and that's it. Little by little it's very important every single detail. Now I'm building up, building back on that, building back on my confidence, trying to work hard and be, you know, positive and be there, focused.” Having spent 13 straight years in the top 50, the 29-year-old Russian is one seasoned warrior.

But from the start today, Pavlyuchenkova lacked the spice she’d shown all week. Aspiring tennis players so often see the glamour in the hands, the wrists and all the subtle manipulations that complete a skilled swing. But the underrated hero of great tennis is the legs; not just in their ability to get to the ball, but to possess and deploy sufficient strength to generate the disciplined unit turns and loading necessary for sustained, emphatic ball-striking. Against Sabalenka, little of that surfaced for the weary Pavlyuchenkova. On more than one occasion, she arrived to the ball late, flailing in a manner uncustomary for a pro, clearly fatigued from a week of great clay court tennis.

Having just turned 23 on Wednesday, Sabalenka continued the celebration, valuing the increasing education she’s gaining on a surface potentially quite challenging for an impatient aggressor.“I think my game has improved a lot on the clay court,” said Sabalenka. “Yeah, for sure it's give me some confidence, yeah. But there's still so many things to work on.”

Sabalenka’s only hiccup came near the end. Up, 6-2, 5-0, she lost three straight games.  Not long ago, the sight of Sabalenka losing such a lead and serving at 5-3 would fill many a receiver with hope (and a Sabalenka aficionado with dread). That wasn’t the case at all this time. Forceful groundstrokes brought her to match point – and a closing ace down the T. “I'm always having fun,” she said. “This is kind of my personality, so... Yes, I just enjoy my time on the court, enjoy the battle, enjoy the game. Yeah, I think this year in Madrid, something just clicked and put me on the right way.”

Sabalenka storms into second consecutive clay-court final in Madrid

Sabalenka storms into second consecutive clay-court final in Madrid