Madrid Open 1000: Barty and Swiatek set up first showdown in red-hot quarter

Three-time former champ Kvitova beats Kerber, but Konta loses in Round 2

Ashleigh Barty
Ashleigh Barty (Photo: Mutua Madrid Open / Alberto Nevado)

With half a dozen clay tournaments done and dusted in the women’s tennis calendar, the time had come for one of the biggest, the first WTA 1000.

The Mutua Madrid Open was cancelled in 2020, along with many other events, due the coronavirus pandemic close-down. However, this 12th iteration brought back the cream of the crop to the magnificent Caja Magica.

Top of the pile, and seeded No1, was Miami and Stuttgart champion, Ashleigh Barty. And at the other end of the draw, No2 Naomi Osaka, the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion, was breaking out her clay credentials for the first time this season.

Certainly there was disappointment for the home nation when Garbine Muguruza was forced to withdraw with a leg injury. And the tournament was missing two-time former champion Serena Williams—though she has not played in Madrid since 2015. But with 16 of the world’s top 20, and no fewer than 10 former Major champions, there was considerable depth among the 64 women who joined forces in the main draw.

The three former Madrid winners made straightforward progress to the second round: Three-time champion Petra Kvitova, two-time champion Simona Halep, and the defending champion Kiki Bertens

The latter two, though, sat in a killer quarter topped by Barty and featuring French Open champion Iga Swiatek, who were on a collision course in the third round. Meanwhile Kvitova was scheduled to meet Angelique Kerber in the second round, with the winner perhaps facing Bertens in the third.

The other top quarter was something of a contrast, especially after Muguruza withdrew to leave her spot filled by lucky loser Danka Kovinic, who lost out to the unseeded Sloane Stephens, and the American in turn went on to lose to one of the most improved players of the last six months, Ons Jabeur.

But this section also lost No4 seed Elina Svitolina to Jil Teichmann, and then No15 seed Johanna Konta to qualifier Anastasija Sevastova. That left just one seed, Belinda Bencic, who made the semis in Madrid in 2019.

The bottom half of the draw was more evenly balanced, with four former Major champions heading each eighth, though No12 seed Victoria Azarenka was bracketed with one of the form players of recent months in Aryna Sabalenka, in the third round. The two women from Belarus shared their two outings in 2020, too.

Osaka, back in action for the first time since Maria Sakkari halted her 23-match winning streak in the Miami quarters, could face the rising Greek again in the third round. And her potential quarter-final could present No5 seed Karolina Pliskova or Jelena Ostapenko.

But slap bang in the middle of this half was one of the favourites for the title, Halep. The popular Romanian came through an opening test against Sara Sorribes Tormo, who won her first title in Guadalajara in March, but with seeds Azarenka, Sabalenka and Elise Mertens—winner of the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne, semi-finalist in Dubai and runner-up on Istanbul’s clay—in her quarter, Halep knew she had her work cut out even to reach the semis.

But on a wet Saturday in Madrid, with the roofs closed on the show courts, it was Barty’s half that prepared to compete for the third round. And the Aussie star had certainly begun her Madrid campaign convincingly, beating Shelby Rogers to take her winning tally in 2021 to 21-3

Now she took on qualifier Tamara Zidansek, and won the opening set, 6-4, but then things began to look less predictable. After failing to convert break chances in the third game of the second set, Barty’s form took a dip and Zidansek capitalised to break twice, and serve it out, 6-1.

Then Zidansek had Barty under pressure in the opening game of the decider, but could not convert a break chance. Instead the Aussie broke and consolidated to lead 3-0. Zidansek had more break chances in the fifth game, only to be thwarted by a couple of aces from the world No1, and Barty regained her focus for the win, 6-3.

It took her a step nearer a first meeting with Swiatek, the woman who inherited her French Open title last autumn.

The Polish star, still only 19 years old, was ranked 54 last October when she made a remarkable sweep to the Roland Garros title, and at the start of this year, she picked up a hard-court title in Adelaide. But this was her first return to clay since Paris, and her debut in Madrid.

She took on Laura Siegemund, ranked 59, and immediately faced 0-40. Swiatek held off the challenge, and herself broke for 2-0. The German wasted no time in breaking back, though, but the picture soon came into focus for Swiatek, who broke and this time held to love, 4-1. She went on to serve out the set to love, 6-3.

Swiatek pressed hard and fast in the second, too, converting her fourth break chance to lead, 1-0. She broke again for 3-0, but Siegemund again pulled one back with some aggressive returning, and made more headway with her drop-shots. It earned her a second break: all square at 3-3.

But yet again, Swiatek broke though, but it then took a marathon effort to complete the victory with the German almost serving herself into exhaustion. Ten deuces, and 10 match points came and went, but at the 11th bite of the cherry, Siegemund made her 40th error of the match, and Swiatek advanced, 6-3, to that highly anticipated Barty showdown.

But would Kvitova or Kerber join them in the third round of this hot quarter? The No9-seeded multiple champion was favoured to advance, though there was little between her and Kerber in their 13 previous meetings.

In this battle of the 30-something lefties, it was Kerber who struck first, but Kvitova levelled immediately, and with Kerber serving at 4-5, worked a couple of set-points with some big forehands and great movement around the net. In the end, it was a net-cord winner that sealed it, 6-4.

The Czech again conceded an early break in the second set, but again broke straight back. Kerber was forced once more to serve at 4-5, and did so successfully, but come 5-6, Kvitova worked three match-points, and converted the third, 7-5, 33 winners to the good for only 16 errors.

It was an impressive performance, and Kvitova has certainly thrown down the gauntlet, but in this toughest of quarters, it will take an outstanding run to reach the semis.

Former champions in draw:

Petra Kvitova (3), Simona Halep (2, plus 2 more finals], Kiki Bertens (1, plus 1 more final)

Potential seeds missing: No4 Sofia Kenin, No6 Bianca Andreescu, No8 Serena Williams, No13 Garbine Muguruza

2021 clay champions in Madrid draw: Charleston 500, Veronika Kudermetova; Stuttgart, Ash Barty; Istanbul, Sorana Cirstea

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