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With Rome win, tranquil Elena Rybakina now holds big titles on all three surfaces
On the men's and women's sides, news from Rome points towards Roland Garros.
Published May 21, 2023
WATCH: Rybakina takes Rome title as Anhelina Kalinina retires
One week prior to the start of Roland Garros, much has been revealed. Rome’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia crowned a new women’s champion who’s in the middle of a great year. On the men’s side, the absence of Rafael Nadal from Roland Garros further highlights the possibilities for a wide range of contenders.
A look at what’s happened, what’s to come—and a revealing anecdote about the King of Clay.
Rybakina heating up just in time for Roland Garros
It’s sad to see a player cease play mid-match. It’s exponentially upsetting when it happens in a final. Such was the case for the 47th-ranked Anhelina Kalinina. Rome had been the best tournament of the 26-year-old Ukrainian’s career, highlighted by three-set wins over Top 20 players Madison Keys, Beatriz Haddad Maia and Veronika Kudermetova. In the final, against sixth-ranked Elena Rybakina, Kalinina took a 3-1 lead in the first set.
Alas, soon after midnight local time, with Rybakina leading 6-4, 1-0, 15-0, Kalinina retired with a left leg injury. Rybakina now holds titles from Wimbledon, Indian Wells and Rome—top-tier tournaments on grass, hard and clay courts. Add to that runner-up showings at the Australian Open and Miami.
Recently, I’ve heard talk about how Rybakina, Aryna Sabalenka and Iga Swiatek comprise a “Big Three” of women’s tennis. Such a desire for significance is understandable. But there’s also something about it I find hasty and efforted, akin to the desire to dub a promising band from Liverpool the new “Fab Four.” Still, there’s no question that Rybakina this week showed excellent clay-court form—darn impressive given that in her two prior clay events, Madrid and Stuttgart, she won just one match.
In Rome, Rybakina again showed her extraordinary aptitude for engagement with the racquet and detachment from emotion. Yes, she also defeated Swiatek in the quarterfinals via walkover (at 2-2 in the third set), but Rybakina will be ranked No. 4 on Monday—and remember that she earned no points for winning Wimbledon.
“I think with my game, overall I can play good on all the surfaces,” said Rybakina. “It’s just maybe for clay I need to be ready more physically and maybe have a lot of, like, preparation also, which not always have time to do after like hard-court season.”
Win or lose, strong clay play from Medvedev and Rune
As recently as February 6, Daniil Medvedev was ranked No. 12. Just a week ago, his record in Rome was 0-3. Now, Medvedev seeks his first clay-court title at dirt tournament exceeded in prestige only by Roland Garros.
Perhaps Rome’s thick, lower-bouncing conditions have helped Medvedev feel more comfortable on clay than has ever been the case. Currently ranked No. 3 in the world, a win in the finals would boost Medvedev to the No. 2 spot—very significant for Roland Garros.
“It's great to go up the rankings,” said Medvedev. “I didn’t play well enough, so I dropped out of Top 10. Tough, not easy feeling. At the same time, I knew that if you get the titles, you going to get back into the Top 10. That’s what I managed to do.”
And yet, only Medvedev’s extensive experience in finals—this will be his 33rd—makes him the nominal favorite versus Holger Rune. In Saturday’s semis, Rune once again proved himself a masterful competitor. Down a set and 4-2 to Casper Ruud, Rune won ten of the next 12 games.
Though only 20, Rune is in the eighth ATP singles final of his career (4-3). The win over Ruud boosted Rune’s record Top 5 players to a magnificent 7-1. One of those victories came versus Medvedev, a 6-3, 6-4 win last month in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals/
“Yeah, I play some of my best tennis when I play the top guys of the world,” Rune said Saturday. “I mean, it’s a good time to play your best tennis because you need it against those players.”
Looking ahead to Roland Garros, both players should already be encouraged by having gone so far in Rome. Medvedev appears to have gotten over his frustrations on clay. And Rune, ranked 40th upon arrival at Roland Garros 12 months ago, must now be considered a significant contender.
A Roland Garros Memory: Practice Makes Rafa
It was one thing to see Rafael Nadal in person at Indian Wells, Miami, Wimbledon, the US and Australian Opens. These were all events where Nadal always brought his brand of unsurpassed focus, intensity and attendant charisma.
But Nadal at Roland Garros had a texture all its own. One early morning there, I walked into Court Philippe Chatrier and there was Nadal, in the middle of a practice session. I have long found these private moments—a single player, removed from the grand public moments of match play—inspiring in both their physical presence and meditative solitude.
Again and again, Nadal threw himself into one ball after another, most viscerally with his topspin forehand. Juxtaposed against the rich deep orange clay and the ascent of the sun on what promised to be a bright Paris day, there was something tremendously powerful about Rafa that made him stand out from any player I’d ever watched practice; perhaps only rivalled by Jimmy Connors and Monica Seles. As Nadal’s feet repeatedly dug into the clay, his connection to the surface was elemental and inspired, literally earthbound—and figuratively transcendent.
All Nadal brings—no matter his opponent—will be missed this year.