Rybakina stuns world No 1 Świątek to reach Australian Open quarter-finals

Jago News Desk Published: 22 January 2023, 08:37 PM
Rybakina stuns world No 1 Świątek to reach Australian Open quarter-finals
Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan celebrates victory over Iga Świątek of Poland in the Australian Open third round. Photo: Australian Associated Press via The Guardian

In a sport where many of the most promising players make their talent instantly known, Elena Rybakina took her time. During her youth, Rybakina was a late bloomer who did not thrive until her final year as a junior. When she won her first significant title on the clay courts of Milan just before her 18th birthday in 2017, a new generation of younger rivals had already established themselves at the top. Her opponent in the final, two years her junior, was a Polish prodigy by the name of Iga Świątek.

It was the first meeting of the pair and, perhaps, the first of the next big women’s tennis rivalry. On Sunday, in the fourth round of the Australian Open, the only two active, reigning grand slam champions faced off on Rod Laver Arena, and at the end of two bruising sets Rybakina emerged victorious against the best player in the world.

Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion, reached the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park for the first time in her career by dismantling Świątek, the French and US Open champion, 6-4, 6-4.

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The matchup marked the first time since Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber battled at Wimbledon in 2016, seven years ago, that two reigning women’s grand slam champions have faced each other at a grand slam. It ended with this year’s Australian Open becoming the first grand slam tournament in the Open era to see its top two men’s and women’s seeds lose before the quarters.

Rybakina started with an immediate statement, bludgeoning Świątek’s second serve as she snatched an early break. Even as Świątek settled, Rybakina continued to trust her weapons as she commanded the baseline and forced Swiatek to scramble in defence. “When you play against No 1, you have really nothing to lose,” said Rybakina.

Throughout her supreme 2022 season, Świątek dismantled and neutralised so many different game styles. But she has always been more vulnerable to an explosive shotmaker in top form, someone who can expose her second serve and rush her elaborate forehand motion.

Rybakina played that role to perfection, suffocating Świątek on return, serving extremely well in the important moments and forcing the 21-year-old far behind the baseline. She served out the first set with an ace.

Świątek’s level again momentarily rose in the second set and she established an early break, but Rybakina continued to press. Rybakina has built one of the best serves in the world – 51% of her first serves so far in Melbourne have gone unreturned, more than any man or woman – and in the second half of the set she served spectacularly, winning six of the final seven games and closing one of the best wins of her career with a nerveless final service game.

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As she digested her defeat, Świątek admitted that she had a difficult time with the pressure during her time in Australia and she was unable to meet Rybakina’s high level when it mattered. But she left on a positive note, far from distraught, convinced that the loss would drive her in the coming weeks. “I think it’s going to be motivating for me, and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to play next tournaments with something to focus on, something to work on, and I think I’m going to go forward,” she said.

That two grand slam champions should face each other so early in the tournament is a direct consequence of Rybakina, the 25th seed, receiving no ranking points for winning Wimbledon last year after the WTA chose to sanction the All England Club in response to the event’s decision to ban Russian players from the event.

Despite securing one of the ultimate achievements in her sport, normally a life changing achievement, the 23-year-old’s circumstances did not change as much as they normally would. Rybakina has spent much of the past six months competing on lower courts, receiving difficult draws due to her seeding. Her profile is still relatively low. At the US Open last year, she expressed frustration at her situation. “It was my dream to win Wimbledon. It’s a pity. I feel like actually I’m not the Wimbledon champion,” she said.

In Melbourne though, Rybakina noted that time has passed since Wimbledon and she does not care. She was offered one of the biggest stages against the dominant player in the sport and she made the moment count to the fullest, backing up her Wimbledon title and offering a clear reminder of why she is a contender for every tournament she enters.

As the women’s draw took shape across the first week, the top half of the draw formed one of the most tightly packed halves in years. Five grand slam champions and two other top eight seeds were in action. The top seeds, Świątek, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula each faced brutal matches against grand slam champions, past and present, determined to return to the big stages.

As Rybakina picked apart Świątek on Rod Laver Arena, Gauff tried and failed to hold off the devastating groundstrokes of Jelena Ostapenko. The 2017 French Open champion played an excellent match and overpowered the seventh seed, winning 7-5, 6-3. She will face Rybakina next in her first Australian Open quarter-final.

Source: The Guardian