ROME — Which is the tougher back-to-back feat on the Hologic WTA Tour? Going coast-to-coast in March to win the Sunshine Double, Indian Wells and Miami on hard courts, or surviving the grueling clay to sweep Madrid and Rome for, what we’re calling — with tongues firmly planted in cheeks — the “Dirtball Double”?

Since the women’s tournament was introduced in Madrid in 2009, only two women have been able to win Madrid and Rome consecutively, with both doing so when Rome was positioned as a one-week event with a smaller draw. Dinara Safina swept in 2009, and Serena Williams pulled it off four years later. Simona Halep and Ons Jabeur came within one win of sweeping in 2017 and 2022, respectively.

And it’s not just the women. Since the men’s event transitioned from hard court to clay that same year, it’s only been done three times. Rafael Nadal, the greatest clay-courter ever, did in 2010 and 2013, and Novak Djokovic in 2011.

But the format of the Dirtball Double has changed once again. Over the past two years, Madrid and Rome have expanded and aligned their formats to a 96-player draw played over two weeks, just like Indian Wells and Miami.

To win the Sunshine Double, a player must go from the California desert to south Florida’s beaches and win 12 to 14 matches over 25 days, all while adjusting to a three-hour time difference. To win the Dirtball Double, a player now must win the same number of matches over 26 days.

The change is a significant one when it comes to assessing the revised degree of difficulty.

“Indian Wells and Miami, everybody’s just used to it,” said Victoria Azarenka, one of only four women to sweep the Sunshine Double. “We wanted more drama and 1715550940 we stretched the drama a bit too much where it kind of becomes like a telenovela when there’s too many seasons.

“I hope we make some adjustments. I feel like it’s too long for everyone.”

Maria Sakkari agreed. The two-week format may give players more time to rest between matches, but the prolonged format can be draining.

“I had a few days between Madrid and Rome,” Sakkari said, “I had the chance to go home. Some people cannot do that. They just stay at the tournament. It’s just another hotel. You’re going to the site every day. It can get a little bit too much. I find it very tough, and I see a lot of retirements.”

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While there’s no time-zone battle between the two European capitals, there is a significant change in altitude. Madrid sits over 2,000 feet above sea level, whereas Rome is effectively played at sea level. According to the players, the change in altitude makes the two clay tournaments feel like night and day.

World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka has won Madrid twice but has made just one semifinal in Rome. Last year, after beating Iga Swiatek to win Madrid, she bowed out in the second round. When asked just how different the conditions were between the two tournaments, Sabalenka’s eyes widened.

“It’s a big difference,” Sabalenka told WTA Insider. “Madrid is altitude, the ball is flying really fast and high bounces. Here it’s way slower, longer rallies, the weather can be tricky.”

Sabalenka wasn’t surprised to hear only two players have ever been able to sweep Madrid and Rome.

“I would say that’s how hard it is,” Sabalenka said. “It’s so different. On hard court, it’s still kind of similar.

“But here, it’s so different. The clay is so different. You have to adjust really well and you have to be two levels higher than the rest of the players so you have this gap to figure out the surface and how to play on it.”

El Clásico: Swiatek squeaks past Sabalenka in thrilling Madrid final

Three-time French Open champion Iga Swiatek has that buffer. During her 37-match winning streak in 2022, she became the youngest player — man or woman — to sweep Indian Wells and Miami.

Now, after winning her first title in Madrid, she could be the first player to sweep the Dirtball Double since the tournaments moved to two weeks. She’s already won Rome twice, in 2021 and 2022.

For Swiatek, neither feat outranks the other in the degree of difficulty.

“Yeah, I think the difference is it’s pretty much the same in terms of having to adjust and how different it is,” Swiatek said. “[Indian Wells and Miami] is a good comparison, I would say.”


An additional wrinkle is that Indian Wells and Miami stand alone as the biggest events of the spring hard-court season. It’s the final four-week push to close out the start of the season. Once they’re done, players go home, rest, and get ready for clay.

But Madrid and Rome are back-to-back WTA 1000s that lead into a Grand Slam. According to former No.1 Angelique Kerber, that’s a big curveball. Players have to manage their physical and mental energy to play well enough to win, while also working to peak for the French Open.

“It is different, and it’s tough to win both,” Kerber said, “but it is possible. But it’s tough, especially when you have one week off and then you have Roland Garros.

“For me, for sure it’s harder [when you have a Slam coming] because I know after clay-court matches I’m dead. It’s always different when you play long matches and you get long matches on clay court, as opposed to hard court, let’s say.”

As the tour’s biggest events at the WTA 1000s expand, the debate will rage on.

“For me, I’m just not used to it,” Azarenka said. “I’m not used to having these events. Then we’ll have Toronto and Cincinnati double, then the Asian double.

“We’re going to have a lot of nicknames.”


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