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French Open: Can Swiatek-Rybakina-Sabalenka fill rivalry vacuum? | Tennis News

For a sport taken to loftier heights after the turn of the century by the ever-engaging battle of three men, the rivalry vacuum in women’s tennis in the corresponding period became all the more apparent.

Elena Rybakina; Aryna Sabalenka; Iga SwiatekPREMIUM
Elena Rybakina; Aryna Sabalenka; Iga Swiatek

The Williams sisters’ showdowns aside, the women’s game that gave us Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert, Steffi Graf vs Monica Seles and Kim Clijsters vs Justine Henin yearned for familiar faces and foes to drive the sport forward in the last decade. Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty carried that potential before the former’s mental health break and the latter’s premature retirement nipped it in the bud.

Over the last year, though, the competitive seeds sown by Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina individually and collectively have grown with a promise of blossom.

Together, the trio holds the four Grand Slams of the last year coming into this French Open, adding the much-needed brush of consistency to the women’s game that had been thrown open wide and wild. As the defending Roland Garros and US Open champion, world No. 1 Swiatek, 21, is the undoubted leader of the trinity. By backing up their maiden Slam success with WTA titles and defeating the Pole at least once each this year, 2022 Wimbledon winner Rybakina, 23, and 2023 Australian Open champion Sabalenka, 25, have shown the stomach for a fight and their rightful place in the rivalry pack.

It has especially picked up steam this season and in the clay swing, adding to the intrigue at Roland Garros. The Australian Open, where Rybakina brushed aside Swiatek in the Round of 16 before Sabalenka defeated her in the final, gave us an early peek. The Indian Wells Masters in March, where Rybakina went past both Swiatek (semi-final) and Sabalenka (final), gave us the Russian-born Kazakh’s dazzling desert display. The three have since split titles neatly on the red dirt.

Swiatek first took the WTA 500 title in Stuttgart, beating Sabalenka in a straight-sets final, before the Belarusian took the Pole down for the WTA 1000 Madrid trophy last month. After crashing out early in both those tournaments, Rybakina went deep and triumphant in Rome last week. She faced Swiatek in the quarter-finals in it when, battling at one-set all and 2-2 in the third, Swiatek retired with a thigh issue as a precaution for what’s to come in Paris, where the two find themselves in the same half.

It is thus of little surprise that the three arrive at Roland Garros with the most titles and most impressive win-loss record on the tour this season. Despite her health issues—a rib injury kept her out for more than a month before Stuttgart—Swiatek has two titles and a 28-6 record to flaunt. Sabalenka (3 titles, 29-5 win-loss) and Rybakina (2, 28-7) have been equally fluent.

“Last year you could say that about me and Ons (Jabeur) a little bit. So I think we need like a couple more tournaments or couple more months to kind of judge that,” Swiatek, asked about the growing rivalry after her defeat to Sabalenka in Madrid, said before adding, “I still am aware that each of us can win tournaments… You can see that there’s like maybe a little bit of a rivalry.”

The three have built their games around a common theme: power. While Swiatek has developed into a smart all-court competitor, Rybakina has blended fine consistency to her brute force. Sabalenka is arguably the most improved player across the 12 months, bettering her often woeful second serves and translating her hard-court game on clay this season to narrow the gap on Swiatek in their 5-3 head-to-head record. It is why after cruising unchallenged for over a year since she sat on the throne, Swiatek now has Sabalenka breathing down her neck for the No. 1 spot, which could well be the Belarusian’s by the time the French Open concludes.

Where Swiatek, the two-time and defending champion, has a definite edge over the other two is her record at Roland Garros. Rybakina has only once reached the quarter-final there in 2021. Sabalenka has never made it past the Round of 32.

“All those players should be pretty confident coming in, with Swiatek having the most if her body is 100 percent,” Martina Navratilova, the 18-time singles Slam champion, was quoted as saying by the WTA. “I mean, we could have a surprising winner, but chances are it will be one of the three.”

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