They are, at this fleeting moment, the Big Three of women’s tennis. Collectively, they have won the past four Grand Slam singles titles and separated themselves from the increasingly deep field.
Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina are the top three players in the Race to the WTA Finals — although not necessarily in that order. They have increased that margin through this clay season, with one victory each, respectively, in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. But which of the Big Three will distinguish herself in Paris, separate from her elite peers?
We’ll know the answer in less than in a fortnight’s time.
Heading into Roland Garros, which begins Sunday, with the insight of 18-time major singles champion Martina Navratilova, let’s consider the possibilities:
The 21-year-old from Poland (she turns 22 at the end of May), is by far the most distinguished of this triumvirate on clay.
For starters, this is your French Open champion, circa 2020 and 2022, and the top-ranked player for 60 consecutive weeks. The 37-match win streak that got her there included three consecutive clay titles, in Stuttgart, Rome and Paris. And while Swiatek has proven herself on hard surfaces, clay remains her best.
The big asterisk coming into Stuttgart was her health; a rib injury forced her to miss Miami and Billie Jean King Cup Play. After taking 45 days to recover, Swiatek returned to Stuttgart and declared herself unconditionally healthy — and her results backed that up.
She beat Sabalenka in the Stuttgart final but fell to her in the Madrid final. Tied with Rybakina in the third set of the Rome quarterfinals, Swiatek retired with a thigh injury she later explained was for precautionary reasons to give her the best chance at Roland Garros.
Swiatek sits at No.3 in the Race and is starting to feel some heat in the overall rankings. Sabalenka trails 8,940 to 7,541. Swiatek is defending 2,000 points in Paris, while Sabalenka is protecting a scant 130. With the grass season coming up (Swiatek’s weakest surface), defending her Roland Garros title could be the key to staying on top for the rest of the year.
Navratilova’s take: “It all hinges on her health. From what I’m hearing, the [thigh] injury is not that bad. If she’s 100 percent healthy, then she’s the odds-on favorite. It’s Iga versus the field. If she’s not, then it’s wide open.
“And Sabalenka and Rybakina, they would be the favorites to win. No doubt about it, the way they’ve played on the clay. All those players should be pretty confident coming in, with Swiatek having the most if her body is 100 percent. I mean, we could have a surprising winner, but chances are it will be one of the three.
“I definitely want to see her in full flight. I want to see her supplanted only if people play better than her, not because she was injured. Last year, Iga almost forgot how to lose. She may not quite be at that stage yet, but she still should be super confident.”
The Australian Open is played on hard courts, but three months later on the dirt, Sabalenka is still riding the momentum of her first major title. She’s No.1 in the Race and has an increasingly good history on clay. She turned 25 the first week of May and celebrated with her second Madrid title in three years. She was a finalist in Stuttgart and reached the Rome semifinal a year ago. This year, she lost her first match in Rome to Sofia Kenin, but that extra time off might help her in Paris.
The results in Paris have been relatively underwhelming, but Sabalenka said in Stuttgart that this was more due to the level of the occasion than the surface itself. She’s been eliminated in the third round at Roland Garros the past three years.
“I never say that clay is not one of my favorite surfaces,” Sabalenka said in Stuttgart. “Actually, I really enjoy [the] extra time. I really want to be in the second week of the French Open.”
Navratilova’s take: “Even though the Madrid court is faster than Paris — it still is clay, and it’s still a win. Maybe it’s more favorable for Sabalenka in Spain, but it’s close enough. If I were her, I would feel pretty good about my chances. You can hit harder in Paris because the ball’s not going to fly that much. Which gives you so much safety. Of course, Iga has so much safety built in with her topspin forehand.
“I like her clay game. Look, not everybody realizes that Sabalenka’s power translates to any surface. And on clay it’s harder to defend because it’s harder to recover, get out of the corners. No reason that with that big serve and those big shots can’t succeed. I mean, she won the title in Madrid, and last year’s results showed that wasn’t a flash in the pan by any means. One of the things I’ve noticed is that you don’t see her sliding that much. So I would say one area where she could improve is movement.
“And don’t underestimate the value of winning that first Grand Slam. It’s a massive step, especially when you’ve been waiting all that time. The expectations became another hurdle she had to overcome.”
Like Sabalenka, the 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan pummels the ball. This was an especially effective technique on the grass at Wimbledon, where she won her first major singles title last year.
After reaching the final in Melbourne (losing to Sabalenka), she advanced to the final in Indian Wells and beat her. Rybakina is No.2 in the Race to the WTA Finals and ranked No.4 overall. A year ago, she won two matches each in Madrid, Rome and Paris. This year, she started slowly in Stuttgart, retiring with a lower back injury trailing Beatriz Haddad Maia 6-1, 3-1 in a second-round match.
But after losing her first match in Madrid to Anna Kalinskaya, Rybakina put it all together in Rome. The fact that three of her wins came on retirements does not diminish her first WTA 1000 title on clay. Rybakina, it’s worth noting, is a searing 19-2 at WTA 1000 events this year.
Navratilova’s take: “Her winning in Rome, it’s pretty big. The courts are not as different as they used to be back in my time. The surfaces are closer than they were, and I think the styles are more adaptable to the different surfaces. I’m not surprised by it.
“Don’t forget, Rybakina grew up on clay. She knows how to move on it. She’s a smooth mover, she can neutralize the power of the big hitters and just seems so level-headed in every way.
“This might surprise some people, but I think she’s got the better transition game of the three. She’s becoming more comfortable finishing at the net. And she can get better with more experience on the clay; when you’re up against exceptional players all the time, there’s still a learning curve.
“Overall, her success comes more easily in the faster points. The big thing for her is to be more patient. Use that 80-percent rally ball more often, you know, dial it down and don’t go for too much too soon. Shot selection for her would be biggest area for improvement. If I was her coach, it would be one word: patience.”