By Karolos Grohmann (Reuters) -The next instalment of a burgeoning three-way rivalry between world number one Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina will play out at the French Open with the world number one spot up for grabs. Touted as the next ‘Big Three’ rivalry in tennis and with the sport in desperate need […]
Tennis-Swiatek faces French Open test as new ‘Big Three’ rivalry emerges
By Karolos Grohmann
(Reuters) -The next instalment of a burgeoning three-way rivalry between world number one Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina will play out at the French Open with the world number one spot up for grabs.
Touted as the next ‘Big Three’ rivalry in tennis and with the sport in desperate need of such narratives, the trio have won seven tournaments between them this year.
They have also appeared in six more finals, confirming their status as favourites going into the year’s second Grand Slam tournament that kicks off this week.
“It’s an extra motivation, for sure,” defending champion Swiatek told reporters on Friday when asked about facing Sabalenka or Rybakina. “We played so many matches against each other that tactically we know our game pretty well.
“But we also have to kind of come up with some different solutions sometimes, which is pretty exciting, because I never had that yet in my career. I think this is what the ‘Big Three’ (Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic) had to do.
“I’m happy to learn some new stuff. And also, we are all working really hard to play better and better.”
Swiatek, who also won in Paris in 2020, is clearly the player to beat.
Having won in Qatar and Stuttgart this year, after making the finals in Dubai and Madrid on clay, the 21-year-old three-time Grand Slam champion looks to be hitting top form at just the right time.
But her number one spot in the rankings is under threat with world number two Sabalenka having chipped away at her rival’s lead after winning three titles this season.
“I didn’t even know about that,” Swiatek said when asked about potentially being knocked off the rankings summit. “No problem, it doesn’t change a lot for me.”
Having struggled for confidence at times in the past, Sabalenka has added consistency to her arsenal this season to challenge for the top spot.
The Belarusian dug deep to come back from a set down and beat Rybakina in their thrilling Australian Open final after having won in Adelaide as well.
As champion Swiatek has more points to defend in Paris with 25-year-old Sabalenka having never gone past the third round at the French Open.
She will take over the top spot if she either wins the title or goes one round better than the Pole.
After struggling against her last year and losing four consecutive times to Swiatek, Sabalenka has now won two of their last three encounters.
More importantly, she also knows she can beat Swiatek on clay, having won the title in Madrid against her earlier in May.
The pair, however, will also have to deal with the 23-year-old Rybakina, ranked fourth in the world and eyeing her second Grand Slam title.
“It’s always tough battles against Iga or Elena,” Sabalenka said. “You’re working so hard to get the title. There are no easy matches… it really motivates me a lot to keep going.
“It’s good for tennis to see the top players consistently doing well. It’s pushing everybody to the next level… That’s how I was pushed by Iga last season.”
Reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina beat Sabalenka at Indian Wells in straight sets, and did not drop a set against Swiatek in her wins over her at the Australian Open and Indian Wells.
They were also tied on a set each when Swiatek retired in their quarter-final in Rome, where Rybakina went on to clinch the title.
A finalist in Miami as well this year, in-form Rybakina could meet Swiatek in the semi-finals.
Sabalenka, however, has the somewhat easier route to the final of the three rivals as they prepare to do battle again.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Additional reporting by Hritika SharmaEditing by Toby Davis)
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Fri, May 26, 2023