Why reigning Slam champs could be next Big Three

Swiatek, Sabalenka and Rybakina are fast developing a three-way WTA rivalry

Aryna Sabalenka, Iga Swiatek, Madrid 2023, final© Antoine Couvercelle/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

A trio of familiar foes is fast raising the stakes in a healthy battle for supremacy and silverware with Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka muscling in on Iga Swiatek’s turf as Grand Slam champions in the past year.

While still early days, their budding rivalries have only added to a mounting case for the emergence of a Big Three on the women’s tour, not that any one of the contenders is at risk of buying into that hype any time soon.

Following years of unpredictability among the women’s elite, the three players’ timing in finding form is fortuitous with the incumbent holders of the four majors hitting their straps in the lead-up to Roland-Garros.

Each presents a welcome juxtaposition in playing styles, temperament and personality, each with a clay-court trophy from the past couple of months to complement their Grand Slam spoils of late.

Sabalenka added another chapter to a burgeoning head-to-head when she foiled world No.1 Swiatek’s bid for the only big clay-court title missing from her collection in the Madrid final earlier this month.

The 25-year-old closed the gap in that ledger to 3-5 having fallen to Swiatek in the preceding Stuttgart title match on indoor clay.

It was the first time in 23 years the world’s top two-ranked women squared off in back-to-back finals and just the third time in 40 years the top two had met in a single clay-court season.

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland-Garros 2023, practice© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“I definitely respect her a lot. She's a great player, and what she did last season and what she keeps doing, it's really motivated me a lot to improve, to keep working hard, to keep fighting,” Sabalenka said of the two-time Roland-Garros champion.

“I know that it's always battles against her. It's always really great matches… I would say that like this year matches are completely different matches than it was last year.

“I improved a lot and I really want to win against her… To have this win, especially on clay, that's something unbelievable.”

The pair had already established a prolific rivalry last season and Swiatek claimed their sole meeting at a major, en route to the US Open trophy in September.

“Last year you could say that about me and Ons (Jabeur) a little bit, so I think we need, like, a couple more tournaments or couple more months to kind of judge that,” Swiatek said of the rivalry following her Madrid defeat.

“I still am aware that each of us can win the tournaments… I played against Aryna, like, I don't know, six times last year, and against Elena twice this year already. You can see that there's like maybe a little bit of a rivalry.”

Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina, Australian Open 2023, fourth round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Having split back-to-back finals in Stuttgart and Madrid, Sabalenka and Swiatek made premature departures in Rome.

The Pole was forced to retire injured in the deciding set of her quarter-final clash with Rybakina – Swiatek's third defeat to the Kazakh this season – before the Wimbledon champion went all the way for her biggest clay-court title to date and ensured a top-four seeding at a major for the first time.

The three women arrive in Paris with the highest winning percentage in 2023 with Sabalenka leading the way on 87.9 per cent (29-4), from Swiatek (83.3 per cent, 25-5) and Rybakina (77.4 per cent, 24-7).

“I think of course I'm more consistent,” Rybakina said in Rome. “There is still a lot of things to improve. But, yeah, I'm happy that physically I can maintain and stay so long in the tournament ’til the end. I think it's just overall all the years of experience and also adapting.”

Following her second straight victory over Swiatek this season in the Indian Wells semi-final – her third in four career meetings – the 23-year-old Rybakina sounded a warning to any prospective challenger.

Elena Rybakina, Aryna Sabalenka, Indian Wells 2023, final© Antoine Couvercelle/FFT

“With Iga, she's tough, really tough opponent, but when I play like this good and everything goes in… there are moments where you can feel, OK, I can beat anyone if I always play like this,” Rybakina said.

In avenging her Australian Open final defeat to Sabalenka in the title match, she became the first woman to beat the world No.1 and No.2 to claim the Indian Wells title.

Even with a hoodoo lifted – her first victory in five attempts against reigning Australian Open champion Sabalenka – the overriding picture remained clear.

“I think the biggest goal is of course to be No.1,” Rybakina said. “There is still a long way to go, so this is the kind of end goal, I would say.”

It is an ambition Sabalenka, too, makes no secret of and a mark Swiatek will likely come under increasing pressure to defend if she is to maintain her standing in the pecking order.

Having raised the bar in 2022, arguably her two biggest rivals have all the motivation they need.