At this time last year, we were far from suspecting that everything was in place for a small group of three players to outrageously dominate all competitions. If said group has expanded somewhat over the last few months, the chances of witnessing a surprise conquest at the Australian Open are still minimal.
Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina appeared to have taken control of the top of the WTA rankings in the first portion of the 2023 calendar. The three players in their twenties had shared five major tournaments in a row in addition to being finals at the Masters in Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid.
The triad had created a wall between itself and the rest of the rankings. Despite attempts by certain players to invade, she resisted.
The new season begins and the guardrail of the three players is weakening. Their domination ultimately only lasted a few months, but their ammunition is reloaded, they are ready to defend their gains.
Swiatek, Sabalenka and Rybakina still occupy the top three spots in the rankings, in that order. The future is uncertain, but the chances are good that one of these players will triumph in Melbourne.
In short, if the core is fragile, it is more because of Rybakina’s running out of steam at the end of the season. Swiatek and Sabalenka continued to play well and above all to progress in the second half of the campaign. While the Kazakh did not play in any final after that in Rome at the beginning of May.
Meanwhile, Swiatek won in Warsaw, Beijing and Cancun. Similar portrait for Sabalenka, visibly incapable of having a bad tournament.
It’s as if, on board a moving plane, Swiatek and Sabalenka were each holding one of Rybakina’s arms to prevent her from falling in the middle of the journey to a new era of women’s tennis. But at the end of their strength, the two best players had managed to narrowly pull their rival on board the plane. Last week, Rybakina won the Brisbane tournament by crushing Sabalenka 6-0, 6-3. Difficult for the great 24-year-old to arrive in Melbourne with better momentum.
For now, the Big Three are holding up, which remains a good thing for women’s tennis. But for how much longer?
As lazy as it may be, the best indicator for predicting who has the best chance of undoing this three-way domination remains the rankings.
In fourth and fifth place, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula are undoubtedly the most serious candidates to break the hegemony.
Gauff resoundingly won the last US Open, while her doubles partner shone in Montreal and at the WTA Finals. Both have the tools to climb to world number one, there is no doubt. But between wanting and doing, there is a whole world of difference. In fact, there are three players.
Pegula maintains a negative record against Swiatek and Sabalenka, while even if Swiatek has become her pet peeve, Gauff has the advantage over Sabalenka and Rybakina in the history of their duels.
Gauff also found his way to victory in Auckland, in a 250 tournament, last week. Her association with Brad Gilbert continues to have an effect and if any player manages to break through the wall this year, it will be her. With a first major title in hand, the sequel can only be intoxicating.
But a major tournament means a larger pool of players. And who says more players means more candidates for the title.
Generally speaking, the Australian Open is rarely the scene of unexpected triumphs. This is the first tournament of the season, everyone arrives healthy and the best are usually the best.
But the beauty of sport lies in its unpredictability and no one is safe from a surprise conquest. Marketa Vondrousova proved it to us at Wimbledon last year. Like Emma Raducanu in New York in 2021.
However, in the current context, if the winner of the tournament is not named Swiatek, Sabalenka, Rybakina or Gauff, it will be considered a surprise victory.
It’s even hard to imagine other players in the top 10 winning. Do Ons Jabeur, Maria Sakkari, Karolina Muchova and Barbara Krejcikova really have what it takes to win on hard court? There are few arguments to answer in the affirmative.
However, we should not be discouraged by this observation. Women’s tennis has been looking for idols for a long time. We finally found them. You just need to know how long they will shine. For the moment, we only see them. Remembering what the men’s Big Three did for tennis, no one should complain.