'We have to separate things': Sabalenka and Badosa are rivals on court — and close friends off it

PARIS — The two best friends stood 5 meters apart in the tunnel before walking out onto Court Philippe Chatrier as foes. Paula Badosa and Aryna Sabalenka are inseparable off the court, but when it came to their third-round match at the French Open, for two or so hours, they went into match mode.

It was time to “separate court and life,” Sabalenka said.

During the match, no words were exchanged. The two become strangers in this arena. But there were signs of trust — the unsaid ties of friendship. At the end of the first game in the second set, Badosa was a break point down. She hit a forehand long; it was marginal. If it was out, she’d be on the back foot already in the second set, having lost the first.

Sabalenka signaled it was long, and that was enough for Badosa, who — rather than wait and challenge or get clarification from the umpire — was already walking back to her seat.

They know each other incredibly well off the court but also on it. They’ve played six times over their careers, with Sabalenka leading 4-2 coming into Saturday’s match.

Ons Jabeur, also a close friend of the pair, said Friday that she was expecting respect but also for it to be a match where they both came into it with an attitude of “bring it on, show me what you got, and let’s see how it’s going to go,” Jabeur said.

But this went to form. After a topsy-turvy first set with seven breaks of serve, Sabalenka retuned the radar on her forehand and powered past Badosa 7-5, 6-1.

“It’s very tough; we have to separate things. I try not to watch the other side and just bring my best game,” Sabalenka said on court after the match.

“I do the same,” Badosa said later in the news conference. “I don’t really look at the other side. I just look at my box and myself.”

Their friendship started at an exhibition match three years ago in Los Angeles, then became stronger after they played doubles at the Miami Open that same year.

They’re regulars on each other’s Instagram accounts, but they’ve also been there for one another through tough times. As Badosa came back from a stress fracture in her back last year, Sabalenka helped keep her morale high.

“She knows that I’m always there for her, and if she needs to talk and ask something, I’m always there,” Sabalenka said.

In March, when Sabalenka’s ex-boyfriend Konstantin Koltsov died ahead of the Miami Open, she decided to still play in the tournament. As chance had it, Sabalenka’s first match was against Badosa. Sabalenka won 6-4, 6-3, but it was Badosa who spoke to the media, fielding questions about her friend.

“I know the entire situation, what is happening,” Badosa said at the time. “That for me is a little bit shocking also to go through that because at the end she’s my best friend and I don’t want her to suffer. It’s a very tough situation. At the same point playing against her, it’s also uncomfortable.”

They played each other again in Stuttgart, Germany, in April, although Badosa retired injured in the third set.

On Saturday in Paris, the questions were about the nuances of playing someone you know so well. Sabalenka said they park the friendship right before the match. “Usually it’s like a couple of minutes [before we walk out] because we see each other in the gym and we are good,” Sabalenka said. “As we always say, we are good in separating things.”

The two practice together when their tour schedules intertwine. Perhaps that explains how they managed to cancel out each other’s serves so well in that first set, with those seven breaks of serve overall.

“Yeah, could be a little bit that, and also the conditions, it was really slow. Maybe we were getting a little bit nervous on the serves, knowing that we both have big serves and maybe in that pressure moments,” Badosa said afterward. “Yeah, could be a combination of both.”

But by the time the second set ticked around, Sabalenka’s returns were flying past Badosa. “The thing is that she’s world No. 2 and the level is pretty high,” Badosa said. “But of course that’s what I expected.”

After the match, Sabalenka and Badosa exchanged a hug at the net. Badosa walked off court, out of the tournament, applauded by Sabalenka, and turned her attention to playing mixed doubles alongside Stefanos Tsitsipas.

“We are used to falling, and we have to stand up every single day, and I think that’s maybe the toughest part of this sport,” Badosa said. “I will try to turn the page as soon as possible, because it’s worth it.”

Sabalenka’s journey in the singles continues, where she’ll play Madison Keys or Emma Navarro in the fourth round.

The first time Badosa and Sabalenka saw each other after the match was in the corridors of Philippe Chatrier. Badosa had just finished her media duties, and Sabalenka was starting hers. Sabalenka made a heart shape with her fingers at Badosa as they walked past each other.

“That’s why I think we have this amazing relationship, because even though she wins 10 more Slams, she’s going to be the same person,” Badosa said.

Badosa smiled, exchanged the gesture and walked off, the two going in separate directions in this tournament. “I just saw her right now walking from her meeting, and she seems to be pissed a little bit,” Sabalenka said, laughing. “But no, no, no, we’re very good on separating things.”

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