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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Women’s tennis suddenly has a big(ish) three

Aryna Sabalenka, left, defeated Iga Swiatek in the Madrid Open final this month and has said that overtaking Swiatek for No. 1 in the women’s singles rankings has been a primary motivator.

By Matthew Futterman

Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka have won a combined five Grand Slam singles titles. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won 64.

Swiatek, Rybakina and Sabalenka have been at the top of the sport for roughly a year. Some combination of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic has been there the past 20.

Swiatek, the world No. 1 from Poland, Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion who was born and raised in Russia but represents Kazakhstan, and Sabalenka, the 2023 Australian Open champion from Belarus, are still largely known only to tennis geeks. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are among the most recognizable athletes on Earth.

So, it is with the utmost hesitance, caution and respect for what has come before that anyone should invoke the term “Big Three” when talking about Swiatek, 21, Rybakina, 23, and Sabalenka, 25.

And yet something has been happening with this group lately in the rivalry-starved women’s game — something that could all come together in a glorious rumble during the next two weeks at the French Open in Paris. Sabalenka, the first of the three to play at Roland Garros, started her tournament with a win over Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine in a match tinged with wartime bitterness. Swiatek’s and Rybakina’s first-round matches are scheduled for today, with Swiatek taking on 70th-ranked Cristina Bucsa and Rybakina facing Linda Fruhvirtova, an 18-year-old ranked 59th.

Ever since Ashleigh Barty of Australia retired while atop the rankings in March 2022 at age 25, Swiatek, Rybakina and Sabalenka have been hogging nearly all of the most prestigious trophies. They have often beaten one another on the way to the winner’s circle, giving hope to the tennis executives — if not the rest of the field — that the women’s game just might be on the cusp of the kind of rivalries it has been missing for roughly a decade, perhaps even as far back as when Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters were battling for supremacy.

“It is what you want, the best players playing each other, over and over,” Steve Simon, chair and CEO of the WTA Tour, said during a recent interview.

The budding rivalry even has a geopolitical backstory to add some fuel and antagonism. Swiatek has been among the most outspoken critics of Russia’s invasion, helping to raise millions of dollars to support relief efforts in Ukraine. She wears a pin with Ukraine’s flag on it when she plays. Rybakina and Sabalenka hail from the two countries perpetrating the war, as Kostyuk reminded everyone Sunday.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has continued to cast a pall over the sport, especially whenever players from the Eastern European countries most affected by the conflict compete. Kostyuk refused to shake Sabalenka’s hand after their match Sunday.

Swiatek has never gone as far as Kostyuk and the other players from Ukraine have, but whatever relationship Swiatek has with her two biggest rivals, it is a chilly one. Swiatek said she, Rybakina and Sabalenka respect one another but do not have any relationship at all off the court. Also, she said, she tries not to think about politics when she plays.

“When I think about the player, like, personally, it doesn’t help,” she said. “We don’t really have time in a match to overanalyze all the other stuff.”

There certainly has not been a shortage of matches to analyze, though.

Swiatek has lost to Rybakina three times this year already — at the Australian Open, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, and this month at the Italian Open in Rome, where she retired after injuring her leg early in the third set. Rybakina went on to win the tournament.

Rybakina has provided a blueprint for toppling Swiatek, a three-time Grand Slam tournament winner. Few could do that in 2022, when Swiatek reeled off 37 consecutive wins at one point. But Rybakina is among the most powerful players in the game, and she uses that ability to put Swiatek on her heels.

“Against Iga, it’s always tough battles,” Rybakina said this year. “Everybody wants to beat her.”

Swiatek beat Sabalenka in the final at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany, in April (with a car on the line). Sabalenka returned the favor in May in the final at the Madrid Open.

Sabalenka beat Rybakina to win the Australian Open in January. In March, Rybakina beat Sabalenka to win the title at Indian Wells, regarded in the sport as an unofficial fifth Grand Slam tournament.

“Women’s tennis needs this kind of consistency to see world No. 1 and world No. 2 facing in the finals,” Sabalenka said after her win in Madrid. “It’s more intense.”

She has also made it clear that overtaking Swiatek for No. 1 has been her primary motivation during the past year and that having a specific target has helped her figure out what she needs to improve upon to get there.

It’s not unlike the dynamic that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic experienced at the heights of their success. They knew they were better than just about everyone else, knew the weapons that their stiffest rivals brought to the fore and knew their top priority had to be finding a way to answer them.

Swiatek said it’s more fun this way, and not just for the spectators. So many matches against the same tough outs and so many familiar tactics to combat turn the sport into a search for solutions to very specific problems.

“Pretty exciting, because I never had that yet in my career,” she said. “Extra motivation, for sure.”

Not a true Big Three yet, but not that far off, and far closer than women’s tennis has been to one in a while.

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