Elena Rybakina Defeats Iga Swiatek in Australian Open

Iga Swiatek could not find an answer to the power game of Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion who is seeded No. 22 in Melbourne.

MELBOURNE, Australia — After starting this Australian Open in the hinterlands of Court 13, Elena Rybakina made it to center stage on Sunday for her fourth-round match with No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Rybakina ended up stealing the scene in Rod Laver Arena: pounding big serves and flat groundstrokes and taking away time and Swiatek’s shot at the title with a 6-4, 6-4 victory.

“It does not matter so much what court you start the tournament on as it does what court you finish the tournament on,” Rybakina said slowly and calmly a couple of hours later.

Rybakina, who is 6 feet and has what tennis people call “easy power,” proved last July what she can do when she gets on a roll, rumbling past a series of Grand Slam champions and better-ranked, better-known players to win women’s singles at Wimbledon.

A second major title is within reach if she maintains the form she showed against Danielle Collins in the third round and against Swiatek on Sunday. Lean with long limbs, Rybakina (pronounced ree-BOK-eena) can generate astonishing pace even in relatively slow conditions, and though she seems to take little delight in doing so with her still-water approach to competition, she made it clear in an interview that there was plenty of fire behind her poker-face facade.

“What you see is calm, but for sure inside I’m nervous like everybody, and I’m full of emotions,” she said. “I’ve been that way since I was a junior. Sometimes it’s good also to show the emotions, that you are actually there and you are fighting. But this is something where I am different from other players. Most players are trying to learn how to be calm. I already know, and sometimes I’m trying to show more.”

There were hints of it Sunday, including the amused smile that flickered across her face as she saw the excitement of the young Australian girl who met her and Swiatek at the net before the match to take part in the coin toss.

But for the most part, Rybakina was all business, opening up big breaches in Swiatek’s normally formidable defenses with her big-bang patterns and her ability to take full cuts at the ball inside the court and straight off the bounce.

Swiatek has faltered in her two most recent significant tournaments: the semifinals of the WTA Finals and the fourth-round match on Sunday in Melbourne.Joel Carrett/EPA, via Shutterstock

She successfully attacked Swiatek’s forehand: hitting behind her on the run and ripping returns deep and at her body to capitalize on the extreme grip change Swiatek has to make after her serve.

“For sure, if I feel physically strong and I’m healthy and I’m playing my best, it’s tough to compete against me, I understand that,” Rybakina said. “But also I’m trying to find my consistency throughout the year because it’s not easy with my big shots to avoid mistakes. But of course I’m trying to do less and less every match because I need to be focused, and it gets more difficult the better players you play.”

Swiatek, the thoughtful Polish star, is the clear and deserving No. 1. She won the French Open and U.S. Open last year and six other tournaments, winning 37 consecutive singles matches from February to July.

But she has faltered in the two most recent significant tournaments: cracking on big points and losing in the semifinals of the WTA Finals to Aryna Sabalenka in November and now losing in the fourth round in Melbourne.

She looked edgy: blowing a 40-0 lead in the opening game to lose her serve and blowing a 3-0 lead in the second set to lose the match, striking groundstrokes into the net at critical phases. She has seemed overwrought during the Australian summer: sobbing in her chair after losing to Jessica Pegula of the United States in the United Cup team event this month.

“For sure, the past two weeks have been pretty hard for me,” she said. “So I felt today that I didn’t have that much to, like, take from myself to fight even more.”

Her conclusion: “I felt like I took a step back in terms of how I approach these tournaments, and I maybe wanted it a little bit too hard. So I’m going to try to chill out a little bit more.”

If you went by the seedings, Sunday’s result was an upset. Rybakina is seeded 22nd, but that is misleading. She got no ranking points for winning Wimbledon because the tours stripped the tournament of points in retaliation for its decision to bar Russian and Belarusian players after the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina, born and raised in Russia before switching allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2018, was not affected by the ban, but without the 2,000 points normally allotted to the singles champion, she did not get a rankings boost for her victory.

With those points, she would be comfortably in the top 10 and would also have qualified for last year’s eight-player WTA Finals, where another mother lode of points was available.

Though she and her team appealed to the WTA to give her a wild card for the event based on her Wimbledon victory, the WTA did not grant the request.

“I think she deserved it,” Stefano Vukov, her coach, said on Sunday. “And people also don’t realize that players get big bonuses from their sponsors for finishing top five or top 10 that can add up to millions of dollars, so not getting the points from Wimbledon definitely cost her.”

Representing Kazakhstan makes it more challenging to market her globally than if she represented, say, a Grand Slam nation. For Vukov, that is a part of the reason she has received more Off Broadway court assignments than a typical first-time Wimbledon champion.

“Where you come from has a big impact on the respect you might get on tour,” he said. “Not to be prejudiced or negative about it, but it is what it is. The biggest markets we have are the U.S. and China. You might get more recognition if you are from the U.S. than maybe from Kazakhstan, which is totally understandable. In Kazakhstan, she gets huge recognition, but worldwide, internationally, it does affect things.”

Vukov is an extrovert compared with his player. “That’s why it works very well between me and Elena,” he said. “Whatever she’s thinking, I’m probably expressing it. I hope.”

He said he had considered complaining to tournament directors about court assignments but refrained because ultimately “people are going to promote who they want to promote.”

“Look, I think we don’t need to prove anything to anyone,” he said. “I think people know her quality and how good she is and how much she can win. She just needs to keep on going down this road, and that’s it and win as much as possible. I see her as a bit the Djokovic of the women: You got to win maybe a couple more Grand Slams to get recognized.”

In Melbourne, she will now need to get past another major champion, Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. Ostapenko, the surprise 2017 French Open champion, outplayed and outslugged the American 18-year-old Coco Gauff on Sunday, prevailing, 7-5, 6-3, as she pounced on Gauff’s second serves, hit 30 winners and repeatedly forced the speedy Gauff into errors with her pace.

“I still feel like I’ve improved a lot,” said Gauff, who teared up in her postmatch news conference. “I still feel like when you play a player like her and she plays really well, it’s like there’s nothing you can do.”

Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, right, met with Coco Gauff of the United States at the net after their fourth-round match.William West/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The other quarterfinal in the top half of the draw will match the two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka against Pegula, the last American woman in singles. But Ostapenko’s quarterfinal against Rybakina on Tuesday is guaranteed to be the higher-velocity affair, and Rybakina will have more support than usual. For the first time at a major tournament, both her parents are in Melbourne along with her older sister Anna.

Her parents, based in Moscow, have often been separated from the 23-year-old Rybakina during her pro career. Her two main training bases at this stage are in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Dubai, where she spent the preseason with her expanded team that now includes a full-time fitness trainer. But Rybakina, whose parents have also joined her in Kazakhstan, now has the means to reunite her family more often.

“It was not easy in the last years, not only me being new on the tour but also how the world changed with all the pandemic and everything,” she said. “It was really a crazy time for everybody, not only the athletes. But, for sure, it means a lot.”

They will all be in her player box on Tuesday: in Rod Laver Arena.

Source: Tennis -


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