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Sabalenka, Alcaraz closing in on world No.1

  • Matt Trollope

Madrid champions Aryna Sabalenka and Carlos Alcaraz have positioned themselves for even greater accolades beyond their triumphs in the Spanish capital. 

Alcaraz defended his Madrid Open title – taking his clay-court winning streak to 11 matches – and now sits just five ranking points behind Novak Djokovic, who dropped 360 points due to missing the Madrid tournament. 

All Alcaraz needs to do is take to the court for his opening match in Rome to earn the 10 points required to leapfrog Djokovic into the No.1 position.

MORE: Alcaraz (back) on top of the world

Djokovic, who won in Rome last year, cannot gain points even if he captures the title again.

Alcaraz, meanwhile, will compete at the Foro Italico for first time in his blossoming career, aiming for his fifth ATP Masters title just days after turning 20. 

But it is perhaps Sabalenka’s march toward No.1 that is even more notable, given how far she began the year behind Iga Swiatek.

A transfer of power could mathematically occur as soon as Roland Garros, a tournament at which Australian great Sam Stosur believes Sabalenka can have an increasing impact.

Sabalenka beat Swiatek in three sets in a memorable Madrid final at the weekend. It was the first time she had ever taken a set from the Pole on clay, and a result that saw her avenge her Stuttgart final defeat to Swiatek two weeks earlier.

This marked just the second time ever that Swiatek has lost a clay-court final; the other was more than four years ago.

Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka (L) shakes hands with Iga Swiatek after winning their Madrid Open final of 2023. (Getty Images)

Swiatek ended 2022 with 11,085 ranking points, more than double that of year-end No.2 Ons Jabeur and more than 7,000 points clear of fifth-ranked Sabalenka.

That gap has now closed to just 1,744 points, with Sabalenka having risen to No.2.

And with Swiatek defending almost 3,000 points over the next few weeks as the reigning Rome and Roland Garros champion, Sabalenka – who is defending less than 500 points in the same span – could rapidly make up even more ground.

Stosur said she was not surprised to see Sabalenka turn the tables on her fierce rival in the Madrid finale.

"Iga's been the best player on clay by a mile, last year and this year so far, and just been so dominant throughout so much of the last two or three-year period,” Stosur told

"(So) maybe a little bit of a shock, but Sabalenka's still the No.2 player in the world, knows how to win big tournaments, is obviously coming off her first Grand Slam win this year. 

"I think she probably is the best player this year so far.”

Indeed, Sabalenka is first in the points race to the WTA Finals, with Madrid marking her fifth final, and third title, so far in 2023.

She perhaps benefitted from the quicker clay-court conditions in Stuttgart (indoors) and Madrid (at altitude). However, according to Stosur – a Roland Garros finalist in 2010 and three times a semifinalist – there are some similarities between how the courts play in both Madrid and Paris. 

Stosur believes Sabalenka must be considered one of the leading favourites for Roland Garros, despite Swiatek winning two of the past three French titles and owning a formidable 46-5 record on clay since 2020.

"Nothing more so than (because of) how many matches she's won recently, winning titles. She could play on a field somewhere and she's gonna feel great,” Stosur said of Sabalenka, who is yet to pass the third round in Paris.

“She hasn't gone into Roland Garros previously winning Madrid, winning her first Grand Slam, being the second player in the world consistently, and beating the best. 

“She's not going to be thinking about what she hasn't been able to do at the French Open. She's riding all of this right now, I'm sure, and she’s a different prospect this time around I think.”

Stosur twice faced Sabalenka on tour, losing both encounters.

She says the world No.2’s weapons remained a factor on slower clay, a surface which afforded her time to complete her big swings. 

"Her first serve has always been huge. When she's feeling confident with her second serve, she still goes for that. She hits her groundies massive, and she's always played like that,” Stosur observed. 

“For one of the taller girls on tour, she still moves pretty well; it's hard to get her out of position when she's able to be so dominant with that first shot. 

“When she's full of confidence she's obviously one of the hardest players to try and get through, because she does have the full package.”

Attention turns to Rome

Sabalenka will look to maintain her momentum in Rome, where she is the second seed and potentially opens against AO 2020 champion Sofia Kenin after a first-round bye.

She was a semifinalist last year in the Italian capital, ultimately beaten by Swiatek 6-2 6-1.

Swiatek, the top seed this year in Rome, also enjoys a first-round bye and could face 2021 Roland Garros finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in round two. She is seeded to meet Elena Rybakina in the quarterfinals. 

Alcaraz is the second seed in Rome, where he is projected to meet Djokovic in the final.

It is the first tournament this season at which both Djokovic and Alcaraz are in the draw.

The last time this occurred was at the Paris Masters in November 2022.