INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- As remarkable as Elena Rybakina’s 6-2, 6-2 takedown of Iga Swiatek in the BNP Paribas semifinals was, it followed a historical precedent.
Twenty-three years ago, at the turn of the century, Lindsay Davenport defeated the No.1-ranked player at the Australian Open and Indian Wells. Like Rybakina, Davenport was 23 years old when she emerged a surprising two-time winner against the younger Martina Hingis.
Indian Wells semifinal results
- Rybakina dominates No.1 Swiatek to make Indian Wells final
- Sabalenka cruises into third final of season at Indian Wells
Appropriately, Davenport was the Tennis Channel analyst for Friday’s broadcast of Rybakina’s victory over the defending champion.
“I’m speechless,” Davenport said.
No deja vu here 🔄— wta (@WTA) March 18, 2023
2023 Australian Open final
2023 Indian Wells final 🔜 pic.twitter.com/qpzsE0SpbZ
The ascendant Kazakhstan player served seven aces and returned even better, winning the majority (57 percent) of Swiatek’s first-serve points and converted all of her five break points. In the end, she won 62 of 99 points.
“There are moments where you can feel, `OK, I can beat anyone if I always play like this,’” Rybakina said.
But can she beat Aryna Sabalenka, the most successful player so far in 2023 -- the woman who bested Rybakina in the rousing Australian Open final? We’ll find out Sunday when the two collide again in the Indian Wells final at 1 p.m. PT.
We make the case for both players:
We can analyze why things might be different this time for Rybakina, but it’s more complicated than that. Sure, if Rybakina serves well and plays tougher in clutch moments, she can win.
But that hasn't been the case so far in their rivalry, because Sabalenka has consistently been better at both. The Australian Open final came down to the wire, but by the final game, all the numbers and momentum were with Sabalenka.
She served better (17 aces to Rybakina's nine), her ground game was both more lethal and more reliable in extended rallies (51 winners to 31) and she created more opportunities for herself on Rybakina's serve (13 break points to seven).
Even as Sabalenka navigated through four deuces to serve out the win, it felt as though the match was mostly on her racquet.
Sabalenka's chances are also bolstered by her history in finals. She's won 12 of the 20 she's played, including all five at the WTA 1000 and Grand Slam levels. By contrast, Rybakina's record in finals is 3-8.
Sabalenka’s record this year is 17-1, with that one loss coming from 6-0, 3-1 up on Barbora Krejcikova in Dubai. She's already avenged that loss this week. Sabalenka also routed Coco Gauff (whom Sabalenka was 1-3 against) in the quarterfinals.
It's evident that, if anything, Sabalenka's new status as Slam champion is enabling her to reach an even higher level -- and there's little reason to think that will end in the Indian Wells final. -- Alex Macpherson
I couldn’t agree more with the first half of that last sentence. It’s been great to see Sabalenka grow into her potential these past three months. But, Alex, that back half … I think Rybakina is ready to create a market correction against Sabalenka.
True, Rybakina’s lost all four matches against her, but it’s also true that all four of them -- including that wild 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 thriller in Melbourne -- went the three-set distance. The look on Rybakina’s face in her match against Swiatek -- comfortable, confident, bring it on -- tells me she’s ready to make that statement.
She knows what it’s going to take.
“I think just to play better in these important moments and hold the serve, because I think few times it was just because of one break,” Rybakina told reporters. “Yeah, it’s going to be not an easy match, and it’s going to be in these clutch moments I just need to play better. Hopefully now it’s going to change the score between us.”
Rybakina was smiling when she said it, but this is a seriously important moment in her career. Along with Sabalenka and Swiatek, Rybakina is a reigning Grand Slam champion (Wimbledon) and this is an opportunity to defeat her two elite rivals back to back. Going forward, that would certainly change the conversation.
How far has Rybakina come? This is already her second hard-court final in three months, equaling her total of last year (Adelaide and Portoroz). And it’s her first Hologic WTA 1000 final.
Swiatek, to be fair, said she is nursing a rib injury. But lost in the wake of Rybakina’s resounding victory is the fact she was coming off a draining 2-hour, 45-minute quarterfinal win against Karolina Muchova. With a day off and the stakes this high, Rybakina seems poised to master this moment. -- Greg Garber