Sabalenka’s progress faces test as she enters Swiatek’s Rome fortress

Just how much the world No 2 has closed the gap on her rival could become clear on the slow clay in Italy

Early in the second set of the Madrid Open final, Aryna Sabalenka was in full flow. After planting herself inside the baseline, Sabalenka unloaded on her nuclear groundstrokes, slamming the ball from side to side. Each time she seemed to have landed the decisive blow, though Iga Swiatek would slide into view in the nick of time, her supreme defence keeping her alive. It took 10 strokes until Sabalenka finally drilled a crosscourt backhand winner past her.

The point was an example of the impact that Swiatek herself has had on the players beneath her. A year ago, the world No 1’s defensive prowess would have elicited an unforced error from Sabalenka in a similar situation. But the Belarusian spent her off-season working hard in Miami on pushing herself to new athletic heights with Swiatek in mind; her footwork was spectacular. Even when she was pushed back behind the baseline or out of position, she skipped around the ball with pristine footwork and gave herself sufficient space to unload again.

“I remember all those sprints and running workouts,” Sabalenka told WTA Insider. “It was really tough for me, but I kept thinking: ‘If you want to beat Iga you have to keep running, you have to keep pushing yourself.’”

This season began with questions about whether players would step up to challenge Swiatek’s dominance and the response has been undeniable. While Sabalenka is entirely transformed, Elena Rybakina has left an indelible mark on faster surfaces. But iron sharpens iron. The added competition at the top of the sport will also make Swiatek a better player.

As the final clay WTA and ATP 1000 begins in Rome before the French Open, Swiatek will try to maintain her supremacy over the rest of the tour during the most important part of her season. “The whole tour is moving forward and kind of playing better and better every year,” she said. “You need to catch up and also be on the path of moving forward and improving.”

Swiatek’s year so far has been solid but not spectacular. Although she has not replicated the unsustainable feat of 37 match wins in a row, she has remained extremely consistent and she sits third in the WTA race behind Sabalenka and Rybakina with a strong 25-5 (83%) record.

Aryna Sabalenka holds the winner’s trophy after victory in Madrid
Aryna Sabalenka holds the winner’s trophy after victory in Madrid. Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP

In Madrid, the Pole fought hard against Sabalenka and put pressure on her rival until the end. She departed the court feeling that the difference between them was merely a few decisive moments.

Along with two WTA 500 titles in Stuttgart and Doha, Swiatek has reached WTA 1000 finals in Dubai and Madrid. The only time she lost before the semi-final this year was when she was ousted by Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion, in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Only the select few who took Swiatek’s previous season as a challenge to improve have been able to hang with her.

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