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Setting Up Sunday: Digging into the Mutua Madrid Open finals
With Day 1 of Roland Garros three weeks away, No. 1 seeds Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz are demonstrating what makes them both leading contenders.
Published May 06, 2023
WATCH: Aryna Sabalenka defeats Iga Świątek in the 2023 Madrid Open final
With day one of Roland Garros three weeks away, No. 1 seeds Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz are demonstrating what makes them both leading contenders. Each won a clay court title last month and this week has reached the finals of the Mutua Madrid Open.
Following a few stumbles earlier in the year, including a rib injury that sidelined her for the better part of a month, Swiatek is now playing the kind of high-quality tennis you’d expect to see from a two-time Roland Garros champion. Though beaten in the finals of Madrid by an inspired Aryna Sabalenka, that result does little to diminish Swiatek’s chances in Paris.
On the men’s side, Alcaraz turned 20 on Friday and enthusiastically continues his campaign to become the leading man of the 2020s.
Here’s more on each of the Madrid finals.
Swiatek & Sabalenka: Coming Soon to Court Chatrier?
In a tennis rarity, the top two women’s players in the world have just met one another in a clay court final for the second straight time. Said Sabalenka, “I think women's tennis need this kind of consistency to see world No. 1 and world No. 2 facing in the finals.”
The precedent intrigues, as that last happened nearly 40 years ago, during the period when Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert stood head and shoulders above their peers. But those two Navratilova-Evert clay court matches took place six weeks apart from one another and were both won by Navratilova, the second coming in the ’84 Roland Garros final.
It’s been different for Swiatek and Sabalenka. In Stuttgart two weeks ago, Swiatek won in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4. But Saturday in Madrid, Sabalenka turned the tables. This one was far more dramatic, a two-hour, 26-minute battle at last closed out by Sabalenka, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
Give credit to Sabalenka for all the improvements she’s made over the last 12 months. For many years, I’ve found Sabalenka compelling, but unreliable. That perception has vanished rapidly. Sabalenka last year admitted it was time to take responsibility for fixing her serve. My unscientific theory is that by addressing a single shot with such depth and personal accountability, Sabalenka pried open the door to rethinking her entire approach to match play. Though Sabalenka will always win or lose swinging big, she has become a far more patient and tranquil competitor.
While rivalries such as Navratilova-Evert revolved around contrast, Swiatek and Sabalenka have much in common, their matches a showcase of shared power and passion, serves and nerves. It adds up to tennis with tremendous intensity, many a lively rally, and mutual regard.
Said Swiatek, “me and Aryna, I feel like we just, we're just hard workers. I know that she's super professional as well in terms of, you know, fitness and other stuff, and we're kind of progressing no matter if we're on top or not, so I think that's why we are kind of solid.”
“I definitely respect her a lot,” said Sabalenka. “She's a great player, and what she did last season and what she's keep doing, it's really motivate me a lot to improve, to keep working hard, to, yeah, to keep fighting. Yeah, I know that it's always battles against her. It's always really great matches.”
Men’s Final: The Struff of Which Dreams Are Made
In most cases, the presence of someone as young as the 20-year-old Alcaraz in the finals of a Masters 1000 event would be the day’s major headline. But for Alcaraz, this kind of result has swiftly become business as usual. Madrid marks Alcaraz’s 13th career final (9-3) and the fourth time he’s gone that far at a Masters 1000 tournament (3-0). One of those came last year in Madrid, where Alcaraz won the title, along the way beating Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Spectacular as Alcaraz has been, the more amazing story in Madrid has been the journey of his opponent, Jan-Lennard Struff. The 33-year-old German this week has brought a James Bond story to life: You only live twice. Ranked 65 upon arrival in Madrid, Struff lost in the qualifying event. But he got into the main draw thanks to pro tennis’ distinct form of competitive charity, formally known as a “lucky loser.”
Long capable of playing exceptionally powerful all-court tennis, but also quite streaky, Struff this week has been more competitively formidable than ever. Of his six main draw wins, five have gone three sets. Included in that was a 7-5 in the third victory over Ben Shelton and a crisp upset over fourth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals. In Friday’s semi, Struff brought the James Bond theme to life even more when he won a three-setter over Aslan Karatsev – the man who’d beaten him in the qualifying. Struff has now become the first lucky loser in history to reach a Masters 1000 final.
“It is amazing," said Struff. "I didn't think about this. I played one final before in Munich  but there was no crowd because of Covid. Now I am here and [there is] an amazing crowd. I think on Sunday it will also be a very good crowd. I am very happy to reach a final and very happy with the win.”
Though Alcaraz of course is the favorite, these two have split their only two prior matches. Struff won the first, a third round win at Roland Garros in ’21. Alcaraz’s came last year at Wimbledon, a first round, rough-and-tumble epic the Spaniard squeaked out, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4.
“I have to go for it, otherwise I will have no chance,” said Struff. “I will try my best to beat him and win my first title." Or, as the Bond song goes, “This dream is for you/So pay the price/Make one dream come true/You only live twice.”