If Elena Rybakina’s run through the draws of Indian Wells and Miami is starting to look vaguely familiar -- that’s because it is.
A year ago, a young, one-time Grand Slam singles champion dusted the field at the BNP Paribas Open, then book-ended it with a triumph in Miami. That was Iga Swiatek. Fifty-two weeks later, she’s still No.1.
Is Rybakina destined to follow a similar trajectory?
Miami Open semifinal results
- Kvitova ends Cirstea's run to reach first Miami final
- Rybakina bests Pegula to win 13th consecutive match
The first step came earlier this month in Indian Wells. Next up is Saturday’s Miami Open final against Petra Kvitova (3 p.m. ET). Rybakina seeks her 14th consecutive victory.
Rybakina is one win away from clinching the Sunshine Double, something only four other women have achieved. In this run she’s shown resilience, an ability to adapt and an increasingly diverse bag of tools. Rybakina won a first-set tiebreak against Jessica Pegula in the semifinals (she’s 7-0 this season), then came back from a 3-0 deficit in the second after another rain delay.
“No,” the 23-year-old told reporters afterward. “I didn’t expect to be in the final. I knew that it’s going to be very tough from the beginning, from the first match. And it was, actually. I was just trying to play one match at a time and focus and push myself and fight till the end. So even when I was down, I was still trying to find a way.”
Can she find a way against Kvitova on Saturday? We make the case for both players.
Pulling off the rare Sunshine Double seemed unlikely for Rybakina a week ago. She barely made it through her first two rounds. Rybakina came through in three torrid sets against Anna Kalinskaya and then saved match point to defeat Paula Badosa.
A win away from joining the list of WTA Sunshine Double champions... ☀️☀️— wta (@WTA) March 31, 2023
Steffi Graf (1994, 1996)
Kim Clijsters (2005)
Victoria Azarenka (2016)
Iga Swiatek (2022)
Indian Wells champ Elena Rybakina is through to the #MiamiOpen final! 👀 pic.twitter.com/1fDrcfkM3u
But those tests were what the Indian Wells champion needed to adjust to the different conditions in Miami. She's survived, advanced and played herself back into form. The pace of the tournament's latter stages has given her more time to recover from her California exertions, and she has been largely unaffected by the rain delays that beset the bottom half of the draw.
Even more impressively, Rybakina continues to showcase new facets to her game. Her renowned serve has provided double-digit aces in each of her five matches in Miami, but it hasn't always been there for her. Her first-serve percentage has dipped below 60% three times, and she has dropped serve at least once in each match (including five times against Jessica Pegula in the semifinals).
It hasn't mattered. These days, Rybakina can even win without her biggest weapon. Much-improved defensive skills and net play bolster her power, a combination that has led her to a 13-match win streak. A matchup against Petra Kvitova pits power against power, and their previous meetings have been decided by fine margins -- but those are the factors that are likely to tilt it in Rybakina's favor. -- Alex Macpherson
From the outset of the semifinal match against Sorana Cirstea, the rowdy Romanian fans in the upper deck of Hard Rock Stadium made their presence felt. A lapse in concentration ensued and, suddenly, Kvitova found herself down 5-2.
And then Kvitova won seven straight games, on the way to a 7-5, 6-4 victory. You could see how much it meant by the celebratory screams after big points.
Alex, here’s another reason I like Kvitova in this one:
The two-time Wimbledon champion has a double advantage over Rybakina -- the vast experience of having been in this spot many times and, at the same time, Kvitova is playing with the kind of freedom that suggests she has nothing left to prove. Which is actually true.
So what happened this year? In her 25th combined appearance in Indian Wells and Miami, Kvitova reached her first semifinal. A win in this final could return her to the Top 10, a happy place she’s occupied at the end of eight seasons.
How’s that for motivation?
While this is Rybakina’s second WTA Tour 1000 final in less than three weeks, it’s also the second final at this level of her entire career. For Kvitova, it’s the 13th WTA 1000 final, fifth on the all-time list, one more than Caroline Wozniacki. That’s the quality; for sheer quantity, consider that this will be Kvitova’s 267th match at the WTA 1000 level. Her 176 victories are tied with Wozniacki for third overall, behind only Simona Halep (186) and Victoria Azarenka (185).
There’s also a little momentum at work. While Rybakina won their first meeting last fall in Ostrava, Kvitova took the rematch earlier this year in Adelaide in straight sets.
With her booming lefty serve, skipping through these fast hard courts, Kvitova has been a joy to watch. On Saturday, she’ll look a lot like vintage Kvitova, circa 2011 or 2014, when she won Wimbledon. -- Greg Garber