INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Elena Rybakina, the newly crowned champion, was running through her thank-yous -- the ball kids, sponsors, her team -- when Aryna Sabalenka finally cracked. Standing unseen behind Rybakina during the BNP Paribas Open trophy presentation, Sabalenka stuck her tongue out and made a funny face.
Now, this is what women’s tennis has been waiting for. While all eyes have been focused on World No.1 Iga Swiatek, Rybakina and Sabalenka might be creating the rivalry the sport has been missing in recent years.
“Hopefully,” Rybakina said, turning to Sabalenka, “we’re going to play much more. See you next time.”
"I'll make sure it was the last one...!" 🤣— wta (@WTA) March 19, 2023
Fighting talk from @SabalenkaA 😝 #TennisParadise pic.twitter.com/9ADEFjMYfq
Indian Wells final
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- Rybakina tops Sabalenka to win Indian Wells title
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Yes, please. The rollicking final went to Rybakina 7-6 (11), 6-4 -- the first set alone clocked in at 80 minutes and featured seven unclaimed set points. Rybakina converted her sixth when a Sabalenka forehand soared long.
And so, in the two biggest tournaments in the season’s first three months, Rybakina and Sabalenka were the last players swinging. Sabalenka came dashing back to win the Australian Open final 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Rybakina, who broke through last year at Wimbledon, and Sabalenka have won two of the past three majors.
Sabalenka leads the Race to the WTA Finals with 3,310 points; Rybakina (2,561) is right behind her, trailed by Swiatek (1,810).
Coming in, Sabalenka had a 4-0 head-to-head advantage, and all four matches went the three-set maximum distance before Sunday’s final. Their power games are both built for hard-court success. It’s like watching swashbuckling swordplay. They rose above the difficult conditions in Indian Wells, where some players said the court was playing slower than clay.
Both players are just coming into their own. Sabalenka, 24 -- some 13 months older than Rybakina -- has won 17 of her 19 matches this year, while Rybakina is 16-for-20. Sabalenka is ranked No.2 and Rybakina is up to No.7 on Monday, from No.10. This was Rybakina’s fourth straight win against the No.1- or No.2-ranked player. She was fearless in taking out Swiatek in both Melbourne and Indian Wells -- both in straight sets.
RYBAKINA'S REVENGE 💪— wta (@WTA) March 19, 2023
Elena Rybakina picks up her first career WTA 1000 title with a 7-6(11), 6-4 victory over Sabalenka in Indian Wells!#TennisParadise pic.twitter.com/Q50lJnK7YD
Against Sabalenka, Rybakina decided to be more aggressive than in past matches. She stepped into the court and basically forced the issue. The result was a regression on Sabalenka’s part. She hit 10 double faults in that lengthy first set -- the last one at 11-11 in the tiebreak. It was a brief resurfacing of the issue that plagued her over the first half of 2022.
“There will be some days when old habits will come back,” Sabalenka told reporters afterward. “You just have to work through it and not every match will be going your way, and you will be serving perfectly. So it’s just kind of reminder that that’s OK to still be struggling with something.
“I was like a little bit overreacting on things, and I wasn’t there in the first two games in the second set.”
Even Rybakina, known for her impassive countenance, bounced her racquet off the baseline during that elusive tiebreak.
Women’s tennis has been blessed with some terrific rivalries over the years. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert might have been the best. Navratilova held a 43-37 head-to-head advantage but both wound up with 18 major singles titles. Stephanie Graf and Monica Seles (10-5, Graf), Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin (13-12 Clijsters) and Serena and Venus Williams (18-13, Serena) were also notable rivalries.
1 & 2 - Elena Rybakina is the first player to defeat the world numbers 1 and 2 at the semi-final and final of a single tournament since Garbine Muguruza in Cincinnati (2017). Fearless.#TennisParadise | @BNPPARIBASOPEN @WTA @WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/Q9uEN5Eox5— OptaAce (@OptaAce) March 19, 2023
In today’s game, it’s a more fluid situation. Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka might have fashioned a memorable rivalry. Barty won three titles before announcing her retirement a year ago and Osaka is currently on maternity leave. Certainly, Swiatek could build compelling rivalries with both Sabalenka -- who she’s beaten four of six times -- and Rybakina, who has won two of three.
Still, stylistically, Sabalenka versus Rybakina is a sweet matchup.
Is this the next, great rivalry?
Pam Shriver, a 21-time major doubles champion, weighed in during that Indian Wells final.
“As of right now -- and after the Australian Open final -- it feels like it could be,” the ESPN and Tennis Channel analyst texted. “But two, three more matches in major events are needed.”
Going forward, both players are equipped to make it happen -- even at Roland Garros. Sabalenka has been to the third round three times and Rybakina was a 2021 quarterfinalist there. They’ve both shown an increasing tendency to move forward, to supplement their baseline power games with some handy net play.
“It’s a tough loss, but she played unbelievable tennis,” Sabalenka said. “Yeah, it was another tough battle and this one goes to her. She deserves it, she’s a great player. Hopefully next one I will do a little bit better.”
In an interview with Tennis Channel, Rybakina said she was happy to break her winless streak against Sabalenka and discussed her ultimate goal of No.1.
“In the beginning,” she said, “we were thinking to finally break to Top 10. It’s just the beginning, many tournaments in front still.
“We’re pushing each other to the highest level. Great battles against Aryna.”