ROME -- The Hologic WTA Tour is in the midst of a unique season. World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka took the first major of the season, at the Australian Open, edging reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in three sets. The four WTA 1000 tournaments have been split among four players.
Barbora Krejcikova bested No.1 Iga Swiatek to win Dubai. Rybakina got her revenge on Sabalenka to win Indian Wells. Petra Kvitova stopped Rybakina's bid for the Sunshine Double to win Miami. And Sabalenka snapped Swiatek's nine-match win streak to win Madrid in three sets.
Jessica Pegula snapped a streak of her own. Coming off a season in which she went 0-4 against Swiatek, Pegula beat the top-ranked player in January's United Cup. Pegula believes Swiatek's dominant 2022 season forced her competitors to elevate their games.
"I think in a way, whoever's winning or losing, we all push each other," Pegula said Tuesday at Media Day in Rome. "When you see someone come up and kind of set the bar higher like Iga did, it forces girls like myself, Rybakina, Sabalenka, to also have to raise their game because there's no choice.
"I think when you see that happening, that's how people get better. Kind of like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, they all say if it wasn't for one of the others, they probably wouldn't have been as good.
"Even though we're all competing against each other, I think there's a lot of mutual respect where we're all pushing each other to be better, raise our level, raise our game."
After winning Madrid last week, Sabalenka admitted she keeps Swiatek in mind when she's toiling away through lung-busting workouts. Every player says their goal is to improve their games but having a tangible goal can facilitate the process.
"When you have a target, if you have really big motivation, it's not easier, but you have a goal behind all those tough practices," Sabalenka said in Rome. "It's easier to keep going. When it's tough, you remind yourself why you're doing it.
"It's not easy, but it's really helping to stay strong and keep pushing yourself to the limits and keep improving yourself."
As Swiatek begins her title defense in Rome -- she already has two successful title defenses this season in Doha and Stuttgart -- the 21-year-old Polish player welcomed the new level her competitors have shown this year.
"Honestly, I think the whole tour is moving forward and kind of playing better and better every year," Swiatek said. "You need to catch up and also be on the path of moving forward and improving."
Always a level-headed student of the game, Pegula said it was only natural for the field to close the gap this season. After all, there is a reason Swiatek's 2022 campaign -- in which she won eight titles, including two Slams and compiled a 37-match win streak -- was special.
"Iga probably set the bar so high last year," Pegula said. "I think also -- this isn't against her -- for her to keep up that level this year, I mean that would have been crazy. I don't think she really expected that. She's kind of like, 'No, I just want to keep getting better as a player.'
"When you start looking at it that way, winning matches, records, I think you lose sight of the process of your entire career, especially for someone like her who is so young."
To her credit, Swiatek has had a healthy perspective throughout this season. She is still 25-5 and has won two titles. Asked in Stuttgart whether she was proud of her season so far, she emphatically said yes.
Her numbers were so good last year that fans and media were quick to take it all for granted. Even in Rome, where she is a two-time defending champion who lost a combined four games in the two finals she's played at the Foro Italico, Swiatek shrugged off the idea that anything about the sport is clinical.
"It's tough. It's always tough," Swiatek said. "Doesn't matter how the finals look like. With Ons [Jabeur], it was pretty tight anyway. I remember it was really physical and every point mattered. In 2021, I almost lost against Barbora [Krejcikova] in the quarterfinals.
"For sure, I have good memories from here, but I'm not expecting this tournament to be easier than any other because it's tough. We'll see how I'm going to play.
"There's always some room for improvement, but we'll see. Sometimes just being consistent is enough. Sometimes you need to play really 100 percent and perfect matches. It also depends how my opponents play."
As the tour scurries to play catchup, the result has been a highly motivated, competitive field that is elevating the women's game with every tournament.
"I definitely think other girls are dissecting more how to beat her, playing better," Pegula said. "You can't really expect her to play lights out forever, nobody can do that, not even the best players in the world.
"I think we've all just pushed each other. That's kind of why you see -- I mean, me a little bit -- but more specifically Sabalenka and Iga meeting in the finals a lot this year, Rybakina-Sabalenka matchups, because I think they're all pushing each other, showing that they want to compete and win these tournaments. They're improving."