Friday saw Elena Rybakina stun defending champion Iga Swiatek with a 6-2 6-2 semi-final win at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells to set up a championship match against 2nd-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, who dispatched Maria Sakkari, 6-2 6-3.
Today I was pushing a lot. Overall, some players it’s more difficult to play against. With Iga, she’s a tough opponent, but when I play like this and everything goes in… Today, in some moments, I played at my highest level. There are moments you feel, ‘OK, I can beat anyone if I always play like this’. Elena Rybakina
“Of course I’m very proud, I really played good today,” Rybakina told the crowd after her 15th win of the season. “I didn’t expect that I was going to play that good today. Yesterday was a really tough match.”
Rybakina, Sabalenka and Swiatek have won all the Grand Slam titles between them over the past 12 months, meaning that, for the first time since 2015 Madrid, the semi-final line-up at a WTA 1000 event contained 3 reigning major champions
There is a long rivalry between Rybakina and Swiatek, going all the way back to their junior days, and their head-to-head in the senior ranks was 1-1 leading into this encounter, the 23-year old Kazakh having knocked the 21-year old Pole out of the Australian Open in the 4th-round in January.
Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion, once again put in an impressive display against the World No 1, taking control from the get-go, and breaking early to take a 2-0 lead, before going on to clinch the first set when Swiatek produced a double-fault on set point.
The No 10 seed’s serve was tested in the first game of the second, but Rybakina held under pressure and then won the next 4 games to take a 5-0 lead.
Swiatek managed to avoid the bagel by saving a break point to hold, before breaking to further reduce the deficit, but Rybakina broke back immediately to extinguish any come-back, and secured the win in an hour and 16 minutes.
“I really played well today, it was a really nice atmosphere tonight,” Rybakina said in her on-court interview. “I didn’t expect I would play that well today.
“I had nothing to lose, I just wanted to enjoy. I think it was one of my best matches this season.”
Swiatek was far from her best on the night, and later revealed that she had struggled with ‘discomfort’ in her ribcage during the match, but added that she is still expecting to defend her title at next week’s Miami Open.
“We’re going to consult with the medical team,” she told the media. “For sure I’m going to use these days off before Miami [to recover].
“Honestly, I haven’t played with a lot of injuries. It’s a new situation for me, for sure.
“Last time I played with an injury, like, the only tournament I can remember is, like, Roland Garros 2019,” she added, smiling. “So I was pretty young.
“You know, now it’s a totally different level. So I feel, like, going on, that matches you have to be 100% fit.
“I’m pretty sad that I lost,” she added. “For now I’m preparing to play [in Miami], but we’ll see what next days are going to tell us.”
Later, she took to social media to further reflect on the match, posting: “Tough one tonight. I gave it all but Elena was a better player. Unfortunately I’m feeling discomfort and pain in my ribs and it was challenging for me to compete at my highest level. I will consult with my team and I will definitely use these next days to recover. See you soon!”
Swiatek’s sensational 2022 season saw her lift 8 titles, including the Grand Slams in Paris and New York, and featured a historic 37-match winning streak, which began with her victory in Qatar and was snapped by Alizé Cornet in the 3rd-round at Wimbledon.
So far this season, she has been able to defend her title in Doha, but has been unsuccessful in Indian Wells title defence and, with 6 more left to defend, the World No 1 has her work cut out for her throughout the year, starting as early as next week at the WTA 1000 in Miami, which begins on 19 March.
Meanwhile, Rybakina was on song on Friday, as she delivered a stunning display of power tennis to test Swiatek over every inch of the court, as she stormed to an emphatic straight sets win to book her spot alongside Sabalenka in Sunday’s BNP Paribas Open women’s singles final.
“Today I was pushing a lot,” she said. “Overall, some players it’s more difficult to play against. With Iga, she’s a tough opponent, but when I play like this and everything goes in…
“Today, in some moments, I played at my highest level. There are moments you feel, ‘OK, I can beat anyone if I always play like this’.
“It’s the goal, but you never feel amazing and perfect every match. I think today it was really good from me.”
Rybakina says she is reaping the rewards of all the hard work she has put in over the years.
“I think I’ve been improving in these four years on tour,” she said. “It’s just everything coming together – the experience, the team became bigger and I’m working a lot on fitness.
“Just getting stronger a bit, physically, and just the work we did for the past four years. It’s showing now on the court and with my results.”
Rybakina and Swiatek traded blows in the early going, but it was the heavy power of the 23-year-old’s groundstrokes that repeatedly rushed the Pole into uncharacteristic errors.
It did not take long for the Kazakh to edge ahead by a break for 2-0, but Swiatek remained defiant and clung close on the scoreboard, working the baseline as she angled for a break back.
The Pole carved out 2 chances with Rybakina serving at 3-1, but the 10th seed did not yield as she saved both to claim the 11-point game and go up 4-1. It proved to be the turning point.
Discouraged, Swiatek ended up double-faulting on set point, an ominous occurrence as she started the second set under a cloud of doubt.
At the last, the striking contrast in first-serve points between them left Swiatek on the back foot too often in the 76-minute contest, as Rybakina won 28 of her 34 first-serve points, 82.4%, while the World No 1 only managed to take 12 of 28, 42.9%.
Swiatek fell behind 0-5 in the second set before rallying to grab a couple games back, but it was too little, too late, and the 3-time Grand Slam champion went down when Rybakina finished her off, snapping the Pole’s 10-match BNP Paribas Open winning streak and improving to 2-0 in 2023 against the reigning World No 1.
“I feel like I can play great tennis even against players who are serving pretty fast and everything,” Swiatek reflected. “But, for sure, the last couple of matches against Elena, they weren’t perfect for me.”
Rybakina’s victory sets a mouth-watering encounter with Sabalenka, against whom she will be out for revenge, having been defeated by the Belarusian in the Australian Open final, although the 2nd-seed currently holds a 4-0 lead in their head-to-head record, with all going to a deciding set, including in the final Down Under.
“It was really close close match in Australia, we had so many battles and so far I’m losing, but hopefully that will change,” Rybakina added. “It’s not going to be an easy match.
“It’s going to be in these clutch moments that I need to play better. Hopefully now it’s going to change the score between us.
“If I’m going to play like I did today, I think I have all the chances.”
Earlier on Friday, Sabalenka was not at her best in her 6-2 6-3 win over Greece’s Maria Sakkari, but she maintained her composure even when her old nemesis, the double-fault, reared its ugly head on a sunny day in the Southern California desert.
“In the past I lost so many matches like that after a few, not super smart, mistakes,” said Sabalenka. “I was reminding myself that it is okay to make mistakes.
“I’m not a robot, I’m a human. I can miss those shots, and probably that’s why I was able to keep fighting and keep trying.”
After the start of the match was delayed by more than 30 minutes to fix an audio issue related to the electronic line-calling system, Sabalenka cracked an ace out wide to open the match.
She broke Sakkari for a 3rd time on an errant Sakkari forehand to capture the first set, but the Belarusian’s frustration began to mount in the second when 2 double-faults gave Sakkari a look at break points at 2-2.
Sabalenka regrouped to hold for 3-2 and broke Sakkari in a lengthy deuce game for a 4-2 advantage, which she did not relinquish, pouncing on a short return of serve on match point, and burying the ball with an blazing backhand.
Effectively, Sabalenka had taken control against Sakkari, seeded 7th, from the start, attacking the Greek’s second serve, and winning 20 of 26 points off it.
As a result, Sakkari, the runner-up in last year’s final here, has fallen to 3-5 in her career record against Sabalenka.
She reached the semi-finals by rallying from a set down 3 times and going 4-0 in deciding sets, but Sabalenka proved too dominant, winning the final 3 games, including 2 service breaks, to take the first set.
She led 2-0 in the second before Sakkari tied it 2-all and, from there, Sabalenka won 4 of the final 5 games to close out the match in an hour and 23 minutes.
“Just super happy right now,” Sabalenka said on court. “Maria’s such a great player, and I knew it was going to be tough.”
Looking forward to the final, she added: “It’s going to be huge. This tournament feels like a Grand Slam. I really want to hold this trophy as a singles champion.”
Sabalenka won the doubles in Indian Wells in 2019.