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Elena Rybakina stuns world number 1 Iga Świątek to reach Australian Open quarter-finals

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In a sport where many of the most promising players make their talent known instantly, Elena Rybakina took her time. During his youth, Rybakina was a late bloomer who didn’t thrive until his final year as a junior. When she won her first significant title on the clay courts of Milan just before her 18th birthday in 2017, a new generation of younger rivals had already established themselves at the top. His opponent in the final, two years his junior, was a Polish prodigy named Iga Świątek.

It was the pair’s first meeting and, possibly, the first of a new women’s tennis rivalry. On Sunday, in the fourth round of the Australian Open, the only two active reigning Grand Slam champions met on Rod Laver Arena, and at the end of two bruising sets, Rybakina emerged victorious against the best player in the world. world.

Wimbledon champion Rybakina reached the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park for the first time in her career by dismantling French and US Open champion Świątek 6-4, 6-4.

The first Sunday of this year’s tournament began with a rare spectacle – two defending Women’s Grand Slam champions facing off on the biggest stage for the first time since Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber fought at Wimbledon in 2016, seven years ago.

Rybakina started with an immediate statement, bludgeoning Świątek’s first and second serves in the opener as she snatched an early break and a 2-0 lead. Even when Świątek settled in and pulled the break back, Rybakina continued to trust his huge weapons, crushing two backhand comeback winners in the game for a 4-3 lead.

Throughout his spectacular 2022 season, Świątek has dismantled and neutralized so many different styles of play. But she’s always been vulnerable to a fully fit explosive shooter, someone who can expose her second serve and rush her elaborate forehand movement.

Iga Świątek reacts after falling to defeat.
Iga Świątek reacts after falling to defeat. Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA

Rybakina played that role to perfection, smothering Świątek in her service games, snatching the first strike and forcing the 21-year-old far behind the baseline. She served the first set with ease, pulling off two backhand winners before landing a final ace.

As Świątek looked for her level in the second set, she responded by establishing a 3-0 lead. But Rybakina continued to force Świątek deep behind the baseline, stealing time from her with the strength of her groundstrokes and in the important moments she found big serves to hold off the world No. 1. Rybakina finished with a flurry of vicious winners, winning six of the last seven games as she capped off one of the best victories of her career with nerveless final service games.

For two Grand Slam champions to face each other so early in the tournament is a direct consequence of the fact that 25th seed Rybakina received no ranking points for winning Wimbledon last year after the WTA opted to sanction the All England Club in response to the event decision. to ban Russian players from the event.

Despite earning one of the ultimate achievements in her sport, normally a life-changing achievement, the 23-year-old’s situation hasn’t changed as much as it normally would. Rybakina is still only ranked 25th and has spent much of the past six months competing on lower courts, receiving tough draws due to her ranking. His profile is still relatively low.

But on Sunday afternoon, Rybakina was offered one of the biggest stages against the sport’s dominant player. She made the moment count to the fullest, supporting her Wimbledon title and providing a clear reminder of why she is a contender at every tournament she enters.

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