Women’s tennis has found the ‘big three’ that may just save it
The ‘big three’ have fallen. Long live the ‘big three’!
I am not speaking of promising young lads like Carlos Alcaraz, who are still too green to be considered the true heirs of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, No, this is about the trident of strong women who are slicing their way through the field.
Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina represent the WTA’s new elite. Over the past five months, they have overturned all those tired old complaints about one-off champions, non-existent rivalries and incoherent narratives.
Even the way they play is reinventing the sport. This year has so far delivered a literal revolution for women’s tennis, in terms of the corkscrewing revs that Swiatek and Sabalenka have been using to shape the ball’s flight.
But let’s start with the storylines, which are suddenly far easier to grasp.
Sunday’s French Open appears destined to be captured by one of the three amigas. Collectively, they are on a 12-month winning streak at the majors, with Swiatek landing titles in Paris and New York, Sabalenka in Melbourne, and Rybakina at Wimbledon.
“In my time you have always had one player who was ahead of the pack,” said Andrea Petkovic, the former world No 9 who retired in September after a decorated 15-year career. “First it was Serena [Williams] and then for a while Naomi [Osaka]. They were better to the extent that, even if you were a top-10 player playing your best tennis, you would still lose.
“Now it feels like Swiatek, Sabalenka and Rybakina are all on a different level to the others, and I think they will just keep pushing each other.”
Admittedly, a peak Serena Williams could probably have matched it with any of these three. But then Williams held the fort single-handed for decades. Whereas the best matches of 2023 are delivering fire from both ends of the court.
Already this season, the three big beasts of the WTA Tour have locked horns seven times. On balance, the best results probably belong to Sabalenka – the mighty Belarusian whose bulging biceps recall the warrior-princesses you find on fantasy book covers.
January’s Australian Open final saw a magnificent comeback from Sabalenka, who defeated Rybakina to lift her maiden grand-slam title. She then edged out Swiatek in a similarly spectacular display last month in Madrid. The upshot is that, unless Swiatek defends her Roland Garros crown, Sabalenka stands poised to replace her at the top of the rankings in just over a fortnight’s time.
The concussive power on show during that Madrid final led Daniela Hantuchova – the former world No 5 who was at courtside for Amazon Prime – to confess that “I'm glad I'm not on the tour anymore. They’re just crushing the ball out there.”
It wasn’t only the speed through the air that had Hantuchova cooing, but the fact that both players were also bending it like Beckham. On the forehand side, Sabalenka and Swiatek deliver respective average topspin rates of 2,340 and 2,440 revolutions per minute – well above the women’s tour average (2,120rpm) and not far short of the men’s (2,680rpm).
Traditionally, most women have followed the Maria Sharapova path of laser-like ball-flight, low and flat over the top of the net, because all the effort involved in imparting topspin limits your maximum speed.
But Swiatek and Sabalenka are playing a different ball-game. Two of the most explosive athletes that the WTA Tour has produced, they do not need to worry about the spin/speed trade-off, because they generate almost as much force off the racket-head as your typical ATP player.
“I don’t like comparing genders,” said the experienced British coach Andy Bettles, who works with Switzerland’s Jill Teichmann. “But there’s no doubt that the physicality and athleticism on the tour is evolving all the time. Iga put together one of the best seasons ever last year. And with Sabalenka, she hits you with these relentless big-hitting combos from the serve and the first shot afterwards. Her general weight of shot is ridiculous.”
Kazakhstan’s Rybakina deploys slightly less topspin – an average of 2,290rpm on her forehand – and relies more on her ferocious serve. Finding herself in trouble against Swiatek in last week’s Rome semi-final, Rybakina belted down a series of aces and unreturnables, switching the momentum of the whole contest. Soon afterwards, Swiatek was forced to retire with a thigh strain.
It will be lost on neither woman that Rybakina has won all three of their meetings this year – a significant head-to-head advantage going into Paris
“These three have definitely separated themselves from the pack,” said John Dolan, the author of an exhaustive history of women’s tennis from 1968 to 1984. “But it’s Rybakina who stands out to me. She’s so emotionless on the court that you have no idea what she’s thinking, which reminds me of Steffi Graf. And her ball-strike is the purest I’ve seen since Mary Pierce.
“I think Rybakina has the mental edge on Swiatek at the moment,” added Dolan, who now works as head of media for the Lawn Tennis Association. “You got the sense that Iga was thinking about previous defeats when she struggled to close out their semi-final in Rome. As for Sabalenka, she has plenty of equipment, but no Plan B, and she has lost some matches this year which she shouldn’t have.
“For me, Rybakina just keeps getting stronger, and I have a sneaking feeling that she could be world No 1 by the end of the year.”