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Elena Rybakina grounds world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in Australian Open stunner
The reigning Wimbledon champion hit through Swiatek’s typically impenetrable ground game to snap her 10-match Grand Slam winning streak and reach her first quarterfinals in Melbourne.
Published Jan 22, 2023
WATCH: Rybakina won six of the final seven games to score her first win over a reigning world No. 1.
The book may be well and truly out on Iga Swiatek, and unfortunately for the world No. 1, she ran into one of the few women on tour who can read it at the 2023 Australian Open.
Playing for a second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne, Swiatek was thoroughly disarmed by reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina’s onslaught of pure power, which dismantled the Pole, 6-4, 6-4, in just under 90 minutes and earned Rybakina her first win over a reigning world No. 1.
“It was a really tough match, and I really respect Iga because the streak she had and the Grand Slams," Rybakina said on court. “She’s a young player and I think she plays really well. Today, I think I was also serving well, just struggling a bit on one side. But in the important moments, I think I played really well, so it made the difference.”
Swiatek has weaved a nigh impenetrable web around the women’s game in the last 12 months, mixing heavy spin with unflappable athleticism to leave the opposition stumped as she made off with two major victories and eight total titles in 2022.
The one thing she needs to work her magic? Time: time to set up her groundstrokes, time to think of a new plan when one isn’t working. Barbora Krejcikova allowed her little of that in last year’s epic Ostrava final and Aryna Sabalenka gave her even less in a topsy-turvy WTA Final semifinal that saw the Belarusian at last dig into the correct vein of aggression to neutralize the tour’s most dominant figure.
All of that made her fourth round against Rybakina, the first Grand Slam match between reigning Grand Slam champions from the previous season since 2016, all the more intriguing: as soundly as Swiatek has played through the first week, few come close to matching the Russian-born Kazakh’s powerhouse ground game. The only one who could was Germany’s Jule Niemeier, who very nearly took the second set from Swiatek at the start of the tournament.
I’m nervous every time I go on court, like everybody. But when I get on the court, I’m calm, or at least I try not to show too many emotions. My coach says that I actually need to show sometimes, so I’m also learning! Elena Rybakina
But Niemeier is no Rybakina, neither the one who rolled to her first major victory last summer at the All England Club, nor the one who began to rediscover her form at the end of last season at World Tennis League—where she scored a statement, if unofficial, win over Swiatek.
And certainly not the Rybakina who began Saturday’s Rod Laver Arena encounter, dictating play with 13 winners and 16 unforced errors in the first set alone—nearly double Swiatek’s totals (8 to 6) as the 21-year-old struggled to disrupt the No. 22 seed’s early flow.
"I think it's going to be motivating for me, and I'm pretty sure that I'm going to play next tournaments with something to focus on, something to work on, and I think I'm going to go forward," Swiatek said in press.
"So I think it's okay, you know. I'll get more time to reset. It doesn't matter for me if it was a semifinal or fourth round or a final, whatever. I just want to kind of move forward."
That’s right, No. 22 seed: had Wimbledon awarded ranking points, Rybakina would already be a Top 10 player, in minimal danger of facing someone like Swiatek before the quarterfinals. She began the week out on Court 13, only the latest snub for a 23-year-old who has regularly felt overlooked since hoisting the Venus Rosewater Dish.
The otherwise unemotional Rybakina has either forgotten or figured out how to channel that frustration Down Under. She rolled through her first two matches and rallied from a second-set hiccup to solve 2022 finalist Danielle Collins in the third round.
“I’m nervous every time I go on court, like everybody,” Rybakina assured. “But when I get on the court, I’m calm, or at least I try not to show too many emotions. My coach says that I actually need to show sometimes, so I’m also learning! For sure, I’m nervous and it’s a big win, so I’m just happy to get to another round.”
After Swiatek found herself outserved in the opening set, she made strides to up her aggression early in the second and was rewarded with a 3-0 advantage.
But hers is not a game built for sustained redlining, and Rybakina soon left Swiatek’s offenses stuttering as she came back on line to win five of the next six games and find herself serving for the match.
An easy hold at love put her over the finish line and brought only the briefest of smiles to Rybakina's face, but she has plenty to be celebrate: after months of feeling ignored, she made quick work of the tour's most visible player, and is armed with the kind of game that can let her do it over and over again.