All of those questions about who would step to the fore once Serena Williams walked away from the tennis tour – joining more recent No. 1 Ash Barty in retirement – seem to be getting answered with three names: Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina.
As the start of the French Open approaches on Sunday, defending champion Swiatek is ranked No. 1, Sabalenka is No. 2 and Rybakina is No. 4. More to the point, perhaps, with a major trophy up for grabs on the red clay of Roland Garros: This group divvied up the past four Grand Slam titles, the prizes that help define greatness in their sport.
They are showing signs of forming a sort of “Big Three,” and while they’re not yet close, of course, to the level of dominance seen across decades from the so-called “Big Three” of the men’s game – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic each won more than 20 Slam championships – Swiatek, Sabalenka and Rybakina are beginning to be seen by some as setting up shop atop the WTA.
“They’ve kind of separated themselves a little bit from the rest of the pack,” said Jessica Pegula, a 29-year-old American who is ranked No. 3 and is a five-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist, losing to Swiatek at that stage last year at the French Open and U.S. Open. “It just comes with the confidence of having a lot of big results and breaking through.”
Barbora Krejcikova, the 2021 French Open champion, put it simply Friday: “They are the best three players that we have right now.”
Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland, is the reigning champion at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open; Sabalenka, a 25-year-old from Belarus, won the Australian Open this January by beating Rybakina in the final; Rybakina, a 23-year-old from Kazakhstan, won Wimbledon last July.
There’s more: At the two key U.S. hard-court tournaments this spring, Rybakina defeated Sabalenka in the final at Indian Wells, Calif., then was the runner-up in Miami. When the circuit moved to European clay, Swiatek got past Sabalenka in the final at Stuttgart, Germany, a result that was reversed when they met for the trophy again two weeks later in Madrid.
And at the last big clay tune-up for Roland Garros, Rybakina took the title in Rome after advancing when Swiatek stopped early in the third set of their quarter-final with a right thigh injury (“Luckily, nothing serious happened,” Swiatek said Friday).
“It’s good for tennis to see the top players consistently doing well. I think it’s pushing everybody to a next level and pushing everybody to do better and to play better. That’s how I was pushed by Iga last season,” Sabalenka said, referring to the way Swiatek compiled a 37-match winning streak that included six titles. “I think that’s something really important and good to see.”
These could be some riveting rivalries, in part because of the contrast in styles and personalities on display.
Swiatek and Rybakina are more reserved publicly. Sabalenka is never shy about letting her thoughts be known.
Swiatek is a master tactician who covers every inch of the court with defence that is as good as it gets. Sabalenka and Rybakina bring as much power as anyone around, starting with intimidating serves.
Rybakina is first on tour in aces this season with 278, a total more than 50 higher than any other woman. Sabalenka is third with 204. Swiatek rates second on tour (among women who have played at least five matches) by winning 48.6 per cent of her return games in 2023.
“It’s nice to have somebody constantly kind of watching you. We played so many matches against each other that tactically we know [each other’s] game pretty well,” Swiatek said. “But we also have to kind of come up with some different solutions sometimes, which is pretty exciting, because I never had that yet in my career.”
And then, thinking about the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic matchups, she continued: “I think this is what the Big Three had to do, for sure, when they played like, I don’t know, 30 matches against each other or even more. So I’m happy to learn some new stuff. And also, for sure, we are all working really hard to kind of play better and better. It is an extra motivation, for sure.”
After defeating Swiatek 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the Madrid final three weeks ago, Sabalenka expressed a sentiment that surely is shared by the other two members of this elite trio.
“Hopefully,” Sabalenka said, “we can keep doing what we are doing this season.”