So the last few weeks have not seen my usual favourites make much of a splash on the WTA tour. Instead, it has all been about Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka, who seem to have distanced themselves at the top the women’s rankings in 2023. World number 1 Swiatek won her second successive title at the WTA500 in Stuttgart, beating Sabalenka in straight sets in the final. Advantage Iga. However, his week, Sabalenka got her revenge, beating Swiatek in the WTA1000 Madrid Open final in 3 tight sets for her second Madrid title. Deuce!
Sabalenka really needed to get this win after a relatively straightforward win for Swiatek in Stuttgart. As a former champion in Madrid, where big ball strikers often thrive in the high altitude conditions, Sabalenka looked on a mission and quite honestly, should have won in straight sets. One loose game in set 2 gave Iga the edge but her aggressive game had Iga scrambling and she was a deserved winner.
In Stuttgart, Iga was the more confident one – again, as a former champion. Once Sabalenka let her level drop a little at 3-3 in the first set, it was kind of game over!
With Rome and Roland Garros coming up, where Iga is defending champion, it will be fascinating to see if she rolls through or whether Sabalenka can reproduce this form on the slower clay.
“There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself“Hannah Gadbsy ‘Nanette’
This quote from Hannah Gadsby strikes me as an appropriate one for Aryna Sabalenka. All WTA fans watched her struggles last year with her serve. Double digit double-faults were the norm, but the way she dealt with this massive issue really endeared her to me. While she was reduced to tears at times – 21 double faults and numerous desperate, underarm serves in a loss to a qualifier in Adelaide 2022 – and she didn’t win any titles, she nevertheless maintained her position in the top 8, made the Year End Championships where she was runner up. Despite serving 428 double faults – over 150 more than anyone else – or maybe because of that, she still managed to keep winning a fair bit. And through it all, seemed to have a sense of humour about it! After a win over Vondrousova at the 2022 Australian Open she said: “I’m really happy right now and mostly I’m happy that I made only 10 double faults.”
I think the mental strength she built up is a big factor in her 2023 success. Not quite a broken woman rebuilding herself, but certainly a broken reliable serve!
Ever since she burst onto the scene as a teenager, she has been hard to ignore, with her loud grunt, the tiger tattoo and a massive power game that could blow anyone away when on. Her turbulent relationship with coach Dimitri Tursanov and then proving herself on the doubles court, where she and Elise Mertens won two grand slam titles together. Hard to forget her bagelling Ash Barty in her first Madrid Open win too.
In many ways, a massive WTA sliding doors moment was the 2018 US Open round 4 match she played against Naomi Osaka. Sabalenka had just beaten Petra Kvitova (sob!) who was the number 5 seed, and was a set up against Osaka, playing her usual massive power game. Osaka found a way to win and would go on to take the title – her first Grand Slam in the infamous match against Serena Williams – and then three more slams. If Aryna had managed one more set… who knows..
At the end of 2019, Sabalenka was dealt a massive blow when her father died at the young age of 43 in November 2019. Only 21 years old at the time, this must have been very difficult for her. It was also a rather horribly sad trend for WTA players around that time. 22-year-old Jelena Ostapenko lost her father in January 2020. Amanda Anisimova was just 17 when her father died in August 2019, and unfortunately, she has struggled ever since, recently announcing she is taking a break from tennis.
Sabalenka’s first post after winning the Australian Open title in January of 2023 was about her dad.
With the help of a biomechanical advisor, she began to put her serve right at the end of 2022, making the WTA finals – which she herself said was a miracle after the year she had had. There, she beat Iga Swiatek in the semi-finals, and only the smallest of wobbles on serve made the difference against Caroline Garcia in the final. However, the renaissance had begun!
Sabalenka returned to Adelaide in January 2023, the scene of her humiliation in 2022, and swept all aside to take the WTA500 title without dropping a set, then that terrific title run in Melbourne and history made…
With her first slam in January and now a 1000 title, Sabalenka leads the tour in wins and holds three titles already. She has been very consistent, with only really the flop against Cirstea in Miami being a disappointing performance. The loss to Krejcikova in Dubai after winning the first set 6-0 was perhaps also a bit of a letdown, but she got her revenge in Stuttgart, Indian Wells and Miami with comprehensive wins over Barbora. Losing the Indian Wells final might also be seen as a bit of a letdown, largely because of the return of her double fault issue. However, this appears to have been a blip, as thankfully for Aryna and her fans, this hasn’t seemed to lead to a return to the bad old days of 2022!
In all honestly, it will be much more of a challenge for her to hit through the slower clay at Rome and RG, and her game is built on power and hitting winners. With Wimbledon allowing Russian and Belarusian players back, Sabalenka will be a threat on the grass – assuming she remembers how to play on the surface after all this time!
Meanwhile, Iga is not dominating the tour like she did in 2022. Anything less than the title in Rome and RG could see her lead at the top of the rankings, narrow.
I have said it before, but I’ll say it again, I am uneasy about Iga when she has losses. It is not that long since the tears on the Olympic court and at the 2021 WTA Finals in Guadalajara. It is easy to forget she is still only 21, but she is an edgy player – unlike the loose and seemingly relaxed Aryna Sabalenka. On the court, Iga is a ball of nervous energy, twitchy and alert but when it gets tense, it is quite hard to watch her get more and more wound up.
Iga famously travels with a sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz. Up to Stuttgart in mid-April, there was also the odd statistic that she had not played a 3 set match in 2023. Her 4 losses – to Pegula in the United Cup, Rybakina at the Australian Open, Krejcikova in Dubai and Rybakina again in Indian Wells – were all pretty heavy straight sets losses.
This win for Sabalenka may or may not prove to be a key one in their rivalry, but it feels like it could be. With a win over Iga on clay – even the fast clay of Madrid – Sabalenka feels like she’s hungry for more.
Of those losses suffered by Swiatek, the ones to Elena Rybakina stand out, as Rybakina overpowered Swiatek totally. With the Indian Wells title win over Sabalenka in the final, many see her as part of a new ‘big 3’. However, since Miami, Rybakina has looked a bit weary. I’m not complaining, but the loss to Kvitova in the final was a slightly flat performance and she has only won one match since that defeat to Petra, leading into Rome.
Barbora Krejcikova caused a bit of a stir when – rather unwisely in retrospect – she suggested she should be included in the conversation after she took out world #1 Swiatek, #2 Sabalenka and #3 Pegula to win the WTA1000 in Dubai. Unfortunately, she faced Sabalenka in the next 3 tournaments and lost each time. As a former Roland Garros champion, she will be hoping for a return to form – and a spot far away from Sabalenka in the draw!
Then there is Jessica Pegula, who has been one of the most consistent players of the last few years. She has a relatively straightforward and not a terribly exciting game, but rarely has a bad performance. She has also become one of the most fun and interesting players to follow. She is a straight talker and has a really nice line in self-deprecating humour. Some absolute classics:
For me, I’m loving seeing all these very likeable and admirable women, pushing each other to play better. (But more wins for Petra and Barbora please!)