In a sport where many of the most promising players make their talent instantly known, Elena Rybakina took her time. During her youth, Rybakina was a late bloomer who did not thrive until her final year as a junior. When she won her first significant title on the clay courts of Milan just before her 18th birthday in 2017, a new generation of younger rivals had already established themselves at the top. Her opponent in the final, two years her junior, was a Polish prodigy by the name of Iga Świątek.
It was the first meeting of the pair and, perhaps, the first of a new women’s tennis rivalry. On Sunday, in the fourth round of the Australian Open, the only two active, reigning grand slam champions faced off on Rod Laver Arena, and at the end of two bruising sets Rybakina emerged victorious against the best player in the world.
Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion, reached the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park for the first time in her career by dismantling Świątek, the French and US Open champion, 6-4, 6-4.
The first Sunday of this year’s tournament began with a rare sight – two reigning women’s grand slam champions facing off on the biggest stage for the first time since Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber battled at Wimbledon in 2016, seven years ago.
Rybakina started with an immediate statement, bludgeoning Świątek’s first and second serves from the opening game as she snatched an early break and a 2-0 lead. Even when Świątek settled and pulled the break back, Rybakina continued to trust her enormous weapons, crunching two backhand return winners in the game for a 4-3 lead.
Throughout her spectacular 2022 season, Świątek dismantled and neutralised so many different game styles. But she has always been vulnerable to an explosive shotmaker in top form, someone who can expose her second serve and rush her elaborate forehand motion.
Rybakina played that role to perfection, suffocating Świątek in her service games, snatching the first strike and forcing the 21-year-old far behind the baseline. She served out the first set with ease, lasering two winning backhands before slamming down a final ace.
As Świątek searched for her level in the second set, she responded by establishing a 3-0 lead. But Rybakina kept on forcing Świątek far behind the baseline, stealing time from her with the force of her groundstrokes and in the important moments she found big serves to hold off the world No 1. Rybakina finished with a flurry of vicious winners, winning six of the final seven games as she closed off one of the best wins of her career with a nerveless final service games.
That two grand slam champions should face each other so early in the tournament is a direct consequence of Rybakina, the 25th seed, receiving no ranking points for winning Wimbledon last year after the WTA chose to sanction the All England Club in response to the event’s decision to ban Russian players from the event.
Despite securing one of the ultimate achievements in her sport, normally a life changing achievement, the 23-year-old’s circumstances did not change as much as they normally would. Rybakina is still ranked just 25th and has spent much of the past six months competing on lower courts, receiving difficult draws due to her seeding. Her profile is still relatively low.
But on Sunday afternoon, Rybakina was offered one of the biggest stages against the dominant player in the sport. She made the moment count to the fullest, backing up her Wimbledon title and offering a clear reminder of why she is a contender for every tournament she enters.