Rybakina, Sabalenka…What if Swiatek has (finally) found her true rivals?

After several years of flux at the top of the women’s game, could Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina be about to create genuine rivalries?

Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka Zuma / Panoramic

Let’s start with a little quiz question: who are the last two players to have played each other more than once in a Grand Slam final? If you’re struggling to find the answer – it’s Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, who played each other three times in the finals of majors between 2016 and 2018. It’s no coincidence, it is simply a reflection of the constant turnover that women’s tennis has been subjected to in recent times, with a lack of rivalry at the highest level being its main feature for too many years, and probably even its main problem.

Iga Swiatek cannot be blamed for maintaining the inconsistency that has become latent since the retirements of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the last two great female tennis stars. The Pole has taken over seamlessly from Ash Barty, who also established this continuity at the top before leaving the scene precipitously last year. Swiatek has already won three Grand Slams at just 21 years of age, two of which came during a phenomenal 2022 season in which she won eight titles in total.

Iga Swiatek, world No 1 for almost a year

She started off on much the same footing in 2023 with a title in Doha and then a final in Dubai, followed by this immaculate run so far in Indian Wells, where on Monday she began her 50th consecutive week as world No 1, a milestone only reached before her by Steffi Graf (186), Martina Hingis (80) and Serena Williams (57) in the history of the WTA rankings.

In short, Iga Swiatek is doing the job. But her huge lead in the rankings shows that she is still quite alone in the world. And that remains a real concern in women’s tennis, which is still looking for real rivals, like in the great eras of Navratilova-Evert, Graf-Seles or Williams-Henin. Because although suspense and change have their charm, we should not lie to ourselves: it is always the great duels, if possible with strong differences or even conflicts, that arouse the interest of the public and end up raising the ratings of a sport.

Swiatek-Sabalenka-Rybakina: a “historic” trio in the last four at Indian Wells

In Indian Wells, the outline of a real clash at the top is taking shape on the day of the women’s semi-finals, marked by the presence of the last two Grand Slam winners; Swiatek and Rybakina, last year’s Wimbledon champion and a finalist at the beginning of the year at the Australian Open, where she beat Swiatek in the round of 16, will meet again on Friday; Sabalenka, the world No 2, who won in Melbourne in January and has had an “Iga-like” start to the season, with only one match lost so far (in Dubai, to Barbora Krejcikova, on whom she took revenge this week in California) plays Maria Sakkari in the other semi.

All this still needs to be confirmed but Rybakina and Sabalenka, like Swiatek, seem to have succeeded where other first-time Grand Slam winners – the Krejcikovas, but also Emma Raducanu, Bianca Andreescu and Sofia Kenin – have failed: to digest this first major title immediately and to move on to the top very quickly.

And because they have this sacrosanct Grand Slam on their list of achievements, they also have a head start, if not in terms of numbers, then at least psychologically, on players like Jessica Pegula, Ons Jabeur, Coco Gauff, Sakkari (who is shining again in Indian Wells having reached the final last year) and, of course, Caroline Garcia, who are still chasing this Holy Grail.

We wish them success in the near future, but in the meantime, the Belarusian (Sabalenka) and the Kazakh (Rybakina) seem to be Swiatek’s two main rivals, in a similar vein, based on an impressive strike force, especially on serve: they are the only two players to have hit more than 100 aces already this season, along with Caroline Garcia, the leader in this field.

Swiatek-Sabalenka-Rybakina: this trio has already written a page in the history of Indian Wells, as it is the first time that three reigning Grand Slam winners have reached the semi-finals of the tournament. You have to go back to Madrid 2015 to find a similar statistic in a WTA 1000 (Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova at the time).

In short, it has been a long time since we have seen such collective consistency at the highest level among the women. It’s a long way from evoking a Big Three, a title now owned by the legends that we know (Federer-Nadal-Djokovic), and it’s obviously too early to go there. But there is no doubt that this is the beginning of a strong potential rivalry and at a time when there is talk in Indian Wells of a project to bring the ATP and WTA circuits closer together, against the backdrop of equal pay, it is probably the best thing possible for the WTA.

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