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Why Swiatek and Sabalenka’s Madrid epic was bigger than the two of them

SportsWhy Swiatek and Sabalenka's Madrid epic was bigger than the two of them


If there were any lingering doubts about the 2024 clique in the elite of women’s tennis, Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina have erased them in the past three weeks.

It’s a couple of days since Swiatek and Sabalenka produced one of the sport’s great matches on Saturday evening, in the final of the Madrid Open.

Swiatek’s 9-7 triumph in a third-set tiebreak left the world No 1 flat on her back on the red clay of the Caja Magica. It left Sabalenka, the world No 2, slumped in her chair, a towel over her head and face, the very recent memory of three championship points running through her brain.

She hadn’t lost them. Swiatek had mercilessly taken them from her.

This was two days after Sabalenka had toppled Rybakina in a semi-final duel, in another third-set tiebreak that required 12 points for the Belarusian to complete her grinding comeback, 1-6, 7-5, 7-6(5). And it was two weeks after Rybakina had knocked out Swiatek in a semi-final in Stuttgart that also went three sets — at a tournament Swiatek has owned for two years.


Swiatek and Sabalenka’s battle lasted three hours and 11 minutes (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

These women are thisclose right now, and they know it. In such rivalries, wonky measurables like who hits the more powerful forehand or finishes a higher percentage of points at the net don’t determine who wins and who loses as much as intangibles. It becomes a question of who can execute the best shots on the biggest points and, lately, all three of them have done it. In 2024, the top of women’s tennis is tighter than ever.

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“It was more about, you know, who’s going to be less stressed and who’s going to be able to play with more freedom,” Swiatek said in the aftermath of Saturday’s mayhem.

“For most of the match, she played more, like, I felt like some decisions were pretty… how to say it… like, courageous. I was sometimes, you know, a little bit back. So at the end, I just wanted to not do that and to also be courageous.”

This was that rare, special tennis where both players play at their peak at the same time, for long stretches, with a title on the line. A little while after the sting of the initial disappointment, Sabalenka knew what everyone watching did — that she played about as good a match as she could, that nearly every point was a coin-flip, that she had been part of one of the greatest women’s finals ever.

“She just played a little bit better on those key moments,” Sabalenka said. “That’s it.”

Men’s tennis went through nearly 20 years of three guys winning just about everything — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, with Andy Murray making it a four-way battle during a chunk of the 2010s.

If she can figure out her serve, Coco Gauff could be crashing the current three-way battle at the top before too long. She’s actually world No 3, one place ahead of Rybakina, but hasn’t managed to hit this trio’s heights consistently since winning the U.S. Open by beating Sabalenka last September; in 2024, the other three have forged past her.

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It’s been a while since women’s tennis had something like this.

Serena Williams had some worthy adversaries over the years for certain periods — her sister Venus, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka — but a sustained troika at the top never really evolved. Since 2017, 18 different women have won 24 Grand Slam titles. The repeat champions – Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Swiatek — have never played the same opponent twice in a Grand Slam final.

Swiatek, Rybakina and Sabalenka are also waiting on that. The only time two of them have met in a final was at the Australian Open last year, with Sabalenka prevailing over Rybakina, again in three sets, in arguably the highest-quality women’s final we’d seen before Saturday in the Spanish capital.


Sabalenka has a 6-3 career win-loss record against Rybakina (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Maybe that is about to change. Judging from what happened on Saturday, and what has been happening for most of the last two years, there’s a decent chance it will.

“We push each other,” Rybakina said after her loss to Sabalenka, a match in which she was a forehand sitter in the front of the court away from likely locking it up. “We push each other to improve.”

This dynamic will be familiar to fans of that Big Three/Four era in the men’s game, which turned into what tennis writer Matthew Willis accurately coined an ouroboros, each meeting between them, and the different stylistic and psychological battles therein, taking the players involved to greater and greater heights, further and further away from the rest of the field.

This all could last 10 minutes, or 10 years. Sabalenka, who is from Belarus but largely lives in the U.S. city of Miami, Florida, turned 26 on Sunday; Rybakina, Russian by birth, Kazakh by nationality, is 24; Swiatek, the first true great from Poland is 22. (Gauff is 20, and improving every year.)

Injuries, the strain of a relentless schedule, a new crop of young talent, a back-in-form Osaka… many things could render this triangular rivalry obsolete very quickly. It may not even fully develop, with Swiatek having streaked ahead in rankings and titles, collecting 18 in a three-year period in which Sabalenka has four and Rybakina six.

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At the moment though, there is something irresistible about the dynamic between these three athletes, who all bring something different onto the court at first glance, but also subtly carry many of each others’ strengths.


The grass suits Rybakina over Swiatek and, marginally, Sabalenka (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Sabalenka comes with brute force and unmatched intensity, but also a quickly improving net game and the capacity to swipe a match away that she shares with Swiatek.

Swiatek speeds across the court and through her matches with that frightening efficiency, displaying an innate versatility that the others are still trying to acquire — but her prodigious topspin disguises the sheer speed and force of groundstrokes usually attributed to Sabalenka.

Rybakina’s elegant, effortless power and at times gossamer touch make her glazed-eye calm seem less titanium than Swiatek’s focus, but in reality, like her tactical nous, it is just as immovable.


Where this all goes over the next several weeks as the tour moves to Rome and then Paris for the last and biggest clay events of the year, and then shifts to Wimbledon’s grass, is anyone’s guess. 

Madrid, where the harder court and the altitude make the ball fly, figured to favor Sabalenka and Rybakina, who are power players, over Swiatek, but she remains queen of the clay. This made that title a key triumph for the Pole — the lone big event on clay she had never won.

Now tennis moves to the slower, more traditional clay courts at the Italian Open and the French Open, which she favors. She’s won at Roland Garros three times in four years. That could spell trouble for her foes.


Conditions in Rome and Paris suit Swiatek (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Then again, Rybakina is the defending champion in Rome. Her breakout win came against Serena Williams in Paris in 2021; Sabalenka was a point away from the French Open final last year before tightening in the crucial moments. She doesn’t do that very often anymore. 

After the clay, comes the grass. Swiatek is still a novice on the surface and is the first one to say so. She has said that, at some point in her career, she will dedicate more time to growing more comfortable with its speed and low bounces, but she has not done it yet.

Rybakina won Wimbledon in 2022. Sabalenka frittered away a lead in the semifinals there last year. Her power is a lot to handle anywhere. On grass, it can overwhelm.

Then it’s back to Paris and Roland Garros for the Olympics, and then on to the hard courts in North America, which should favor Sabalenka, the two-time defending champion on the Australian Open’s hard courts and a U.S. Open finalist last year… though Swiatek is the only one of the three to have won at Flushing Meadows, in 2022.


Swiatek, Rybakina and Sabalenka get asked about this second Big Three stuff a lot these days. Usually, they try to shrug it off. That other Big Three have won 66 Grand Slams and may not be done yet. They are on seven. There’s a long way to go, but it’s where they hope this is all headed.

“I’m really happy to be one of these Big Three,” Sabalenka said Saturday night, when she had come second and was trying to grasp a silver lining.

“It’s really motivating me a lot to keep working and to keep improving myself just so I stay there, and then kind of, like, you know, just be there and get as many wins against them as I can.”

(Top photos: Daniel Pockett; Quality Sport Images; Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)





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