Elena Rybakina Is Really Special
Let’s take a look at the most improved player of the 2020 season, who has reached the final in four tournaments out of the five she’s competed in.
One of the most fascinating things in tennis is witnessing the ascent of special players. Whether they do it gradually or out of the blue, young athletes experience a breakthrough and emerge from virtual obscurity, revealing themselves to the world.
I’ve mentioned special players because, in order to reach a higher plateau (that of champions), it is necessary that the stars that aligned to propitiate their emergence stay that way for quite some time. Astrological metaphors aside, the careers of up-and-coming sportspeople are laden with unpredictability and with setbacks that might shatter the prospects of the most promising ones. Timing is essential to avoid health issues, injuries, or even growing pains that might be acceptable and expected at other times, but that might compromise an entire career if occurring at the worst possible moment.
This long premise is needed to approach what Elena Rybakina has done in 2020, because it’s the token of a special player. And if she’ll be able to keep up with what she’s accomplished over the last few weeks, then we will be able to say that we were all witnesses to the surge of something even bigger, perhaps a Top 10 player, perhaps a champion.
In order to talk about her, I need to go back to her beginnings. Setting up the table, perhaps perfunctorily, is essential to understanding her growth and evolution, which have transformed her into the unique player she is today.
Elena Rybakina was born in Moscow on June 17, 1999, and started playing tennis at six. She’s said in an interview that tennis was a “second choice” because of her height: she dabbled for a bit with gymnastics and ice skating, but every coach told her clearly that she was too tall to be a standout (well, if you’re tall you do stand out, but I don’t think that the irony translates in Russian as well). At her first ice skating training, all newcomers were split into two groups: those who could hope to reach official competitions, and those who could only do it for fun – Elena ended up in the latter.
Racquets and fuzzy balls then became the default option, but, while initially a rebound game for the heartbroken child, tennis soon became the real love affair for Elena. She very simply enjoys playing, and such enjoyment has remained through the years, even when sacrifice and hard work became staples in order to reach loftier heights – tennis is still a game to her.
After a few local tournaments, here comes the big stage of international junior tournaments. As an understudy, Rybakina’s career was marked by good-yet-not-too-good results. She played quite a lot (95 wins, 35 losses), and after a few bouts she began to be called up for team competition by the Russian federation, becoming an athlete of national interest.
She then reached the junior Top 100, but didn’t become a household name till the very end of her junior career. In 2017, she reached the semis at the French Open, the quarters at Flushing Meadows, and above all won the Bonfiglio Trophy, a Grade A tournament (just as important as a Major), in May. At the Milan event, she beat Wang Xiyu in the second round, and Iga Swiatek in the final, although it should be noted that the Pole is two years younger than Rybakina.
The Bonfiglio final can still be watched on YouTube: that day, Swiatek leapt out of the blocks, finding herself ahead with a score of 6-1 6-5, and about to serve the match out. At the decisive moment, though, she couldn’t seal the deal (especially because of a high double fault tally), paving the way for Rybakina’s 1-6 7-6 6-3 comeback win. Therefore, the takeaway was that Swiatek was more talented albeit more mercurial, and that she was the one who would leave a mark on women’s tennis.
Thanks to the results she racked up over the last few months as a junior player, at an age when most of her peers had already turned pro, Elena reached her highest ranking at N.3 in December 2017. Throughout her junior days, she trained at the Spartak Moscow club under Andrey Chesnokov (who needs no introductions) and Evgenia Kulikovskaya (former world N.91 in 2003), while her fitness regiment was managed by Irina Kiseleva, former modern Pentathlon world champion. Obviously, they weren’t her exclusive coaches, but rather mentored the whole young crux of the tennis club.
Meanwhile, Rybakina found her feet at the ITF level, and, like with her junior career, she didn’t stand out as particularly precious, but rather matured at a steady pace. At the end of 2017, she was the 420th player in the world, and suited herself for one more season of ranking-climbing. In 2018, she won a 15K in Kazana, while also debuting on the WTA Tour thanks to a wildcard for the St. Petersburg indoor event. There, she reached the quarter finals by knocking out in a major upset the then world N.7 Caroline Garcia (2-6 7-6 6-4) before bowing out against Julia Goerges. The 125 points she earned represented a shade less than half of her season’s haul, and boosted her ranking up to the 191st spot.
Roland Garros Daily Preview: The Second Week Begins on Sunday
The round of 16 begins on Sunday in Paris.
The highest-ranked players in the world named Lorenzo, Italians Lorenzo Musetti and Lorenzo Sonego, face tall tasks in the fourth round. Musetti plays World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz, while Sonego plays Karen Khachanov, who has advanced to the semifinals at the last two Majors. Plus the finalists at the last Slam, Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, both play their fourth round matches on Sunday.
On the women’s side, Elina Svitolina faces the toughest test yet in her impressive return from child birth, in ninth-seeded Daria Kasatkina, a semifinalist here a year ago. And the FTT have finally scheduled a WTA match for the night session, where Major champs Aryna Sabalenka and Sloane Stephens will collide.
Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s four most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule. Sunday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.
Karen Khachanov (11) vs. Lorenzo Sonego – 11:00am on Court Suzanne-Lenglen
While Khachanov’s recent Slam success has come at hard court Majors, this remains his best Major. Karen is now 20-6 at Roland Garros, and has reached the second week in six of his seven appearances. However, he’s just 1-4 in the round of 16 at this event.
Sonego outlasted Khachanov’s close friend and frequent doubles partner, Andrey Rublev, in five sets on Friday. This is now a third career appearance in the round of 16 at a Major for the 28-year-old Italian, one of which came here three years ago. However, he’s 0-2 in those prior appearances.
They have played three times before, with Khachanov taking two of those three meetings, though they’ve split the two that occurred on clay. All of those matches occurred between four-to-five years ago. On Sunday, I give the slight edge to Karen. He has the bigger game which can more easily dictate play, and a huge edge in experience in the second week of Slams.
Carlos Alcaraz (1) vs. Lorenzo Musetti (17) – Third on Court Philippe-Chatrier
Alcaraz is now 33-3 in 2023, and has lost only one set through his first three matches in Paris. Carlitos is looking to equal his best result at this tournament, when he advanced to the quarterfinals a year ago. But his potential road to the final is anything but easy, starting with the uber-talented Musetti on Sunday, then potentially Tsitsipas in the quarters, and Djokovic in the semifinals.
Musetti has not dropped any sets to this stage, impressively taking out Cam Norrie in the third round, losing just seven games in the match. This equals Lorenzo’s best career result at a Major to date, when he reached the round of 16 in Paris two years ago, and was even up two sets against Djokovic, yet only managed one game in the last three sets.
This is only the second of what will likely be many tour-level encounters between 20-year-old Alcaraz and 21-year-old Musetti. When they played last summer in the final of Hamburg on clay, Lorenzo prevailed 6-4 in the third after nearly three hours. But in the best-of-five format, the red-hot and super-fit Carlitos is the favorite, though I’m quite curious to see how seriously Musetti can challenge Alcaraz on this big stage.
Elina Svitolina vs. Daria Kasatkina (9) – Third on Court Suzanne-Lenglen
Kasatkina was just 12-12 this season, and is defending semifinal points here from a year ago. Yet she has performed very well under that pressure, winning all of her matches decisively in straight sets. This is easily her strongest Major, where she owns 20 career wins, while she’s yet to accumulate double-digit wins at any other.
But this is also Svitolina’s best Slam, where she’s now 25-9, with three previous quarterfinals. And while this is just her fifth WTA-level tournament since becoming a mother, returning to action only two months ago, she’s on an eight-match winning streak, coming off a title run a week ago in Strasbourg. Elina survived two consecutive three-setters to reach this fourth round contest.
And Svitolina has completely dominated their history, with a record of 6-0. That includes a clay court match five years ago in Rome, which is only one of two occasions Kasatkina has even managed to take a set off of her. So despite Elina’s lack of match play this past year, she should be favored to achieve her fourth French Open quarterfinal.
Sloane Stephens vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2) – Not Before 8:15pm on Court Philippe-Chatrier
Sabalenka is an excellent 32-5 this year, and yet to lose a set in Paris. This is the farthest she has ever advanced in this city, though she’s reached the semis or better at every other Major. Aryna is looking to win her fourth title of the season, and her second Slam in a row.
Stephens’ Major title came nearly six years ago in New York, though she did reach another final here a year later, when she was even up a set and a break before losing to Simona Halep. Sloane had quite a rough start to her year, but has now won 12 of her last 14 matches on clay, including a title run at an ITF-level event a month ago. And unlike Sabalenka, Roland Garros is her best Major, where she’s now 35-11 lifetime, and she’s reached the second week in nine of her last 11 appearances.
Sabalenka leads their head-to-head 3-0, though all three of those matches went the distance. I expect another tight encounter on Sunday evening, but Aryna must be considered the favorite based on her recent form, and how well her big serve and groundstrokes have been clicking.
Other Notable Matches on Sunday:
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Elise Mertens (28) – Pavlyuchenkova was the runner-up here two years ago, but this run to the round of 16 is a surprise, as she was just 8-9 on the year coming into this event after missing most of 2022 due to a knee injury. Mertens is 18-11 this season, and has not dropped a set to this stage, upsetting third-seeded Jessica Pegula in the last round. They have split two previous meetings, both of which took place in 2017.
Novak Djokovic (3) vs. Juan Pablo Varillas – Djokovic claimed all nine sets he played in the first week, even though four of them went to a tiebreak. Varillas has amazingly won three five-setters, coming from two-sets-down in the first two. The 27-year-old had never won a match at a Major prior to this fortnight, and is the first Peruvian to advance this far at Roland Garros in nearly 30 years.
Karolina Muchova vs. Elina Avanesyan (LL) – Muchova is vying for her fourth Slam quarterfinal, and her first since Wimbledon 2021, as injuries have interrupted her career. Avanesyan is a 20-year-old lucky loser who upset Belinda Bencic in the first round, and is appearing in only her second main draw at a Major.
Sebastian Ofner (Q) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (5) – Tsitsipas has only dropped one set thus far, while Ofner survived a five-setter against Fabio Fognini in the last round, and is another 27-year-old debuting in the second week of a Slam.
Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.
Roland Garros Daily Preview: Teen Sensations Meet in the Third Round
Third round singles action concludes on Saturday in Paris.
In what could be the first of many battles between two of tennis’ most promising young stars, 19-year-old Coco Gauff will face 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva. And the top two American men, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, take on considerable opposition in Francisco Cerundolo and Sascha Zverev, respectively.
Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s four most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule. Saturday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.
Mirra Andreeva (Q) vs. Coco Gauff (6) – Second on Court Suzanne-Lenglen
Gauff is 21-8 on the year despite changes to her coaching team and some continued issues with the mechanics of her game, primarily her forehand and serve. She was the runner-up here a year ago, losing 6-1, 6-3 in the final to Iga Swiatek. Coco dropped the first set in her opener, but has easily secured her four sets played since.
Andreeva is ranked 143rd in the world, but she started the year 312th. She is an excellent 22-2 at all levels, including qualifying. Mirra has taken all 10 sets she’s played since the beginning of qualifying last week. The tennis world first took notice of her earlier this clay court season in Madrid, when she upset Leylah Fernandez, Beatriz Haddad Maia, and Magda Linette to reach the fourth round.
On Saturday, I would not be shocked to witness Andreeva upset Gauff. Coco has not been playing her best tennis of late, going just 3-3 on clay ahead of this fortnight. And she has the pressure of defending finalist points on her young shoulders. But Gauff has a big game, and certainly has a huge edge in experience, both of which should be enough to propel her to victory.
Francisco Cerundolo (23) vs. Taylor Fritz (9) – Third on Court Suzanne-Lenglen
It will be quite interesting to see and hear how the French crowd treats Fritz on Saturday after provoking, trolling, and shushing the audience on Thursday evening. Taylor may live to regret that decision, as the French tennis fans have long memories, and love to involve themselves in matches. Fritz is now a strong 31-11 this season, and looking to advance to the second week of this tournament for the first time.
Cerundolo is 22-14 this year, and 15-9 on clay. All three of his career ATP finals have come on this surface, including just last week in Lyon.
So what will prevail on Saturday: Taylor’s serving prowess, or Francisco’s formidable forehand? In another first career meeting on the day, I give the American the slight edge. While the crowd will be against him, he is much more experienced at this stage of a Major. Prior to this year, Cerundolo was 0-4 in the main draw at Slams.
Bianca Andreescu vs. Lesia Tsurenko – Third on Court Simonne-Mathieu
Andreescu’s victory over Victoria Azarenka in the first round was quite a surprise. Bianca was just 9-9 on the year, and 0-2 on clay, a surface where she only owns 14 career victories. She has unfortunately suffered setback after setback since her amazing 2019 season, yet continues to try to fight her way back to the top of the sport.
Tsurenko, a Ukrainian, has been open regarding how hard it has been to play on tour for the last year-and-a-half. She even withdrew from Indian Wells in March, after having a panic attack which she blamed on unsettling comments from WTA CEO Steve Simon regarding Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. But Lesia is now a superb 27-8 this season at all levels, and eliminated 2021 champion Barbora Krejcikova in the first round.
Their only prior encounter occurred earlier this year on a hard court in Hua Hin, when Tsurenko was leading 7-5, 4-0 in the semifinals before Andreescu retired from the match. And on Saturday, I lean towards Lesia to prevail again based on both players’ form this season.
Sascha Zverev (22) vs. Frances Tiafoe (12) – Not Before 8:15pm on Court Philippe-Chatrier
Tiafoe is 23-8 in 2023, and while clay is not his strongest surface, he did win a 250-level title at the start of the clay season in Houston. Frances was just 1-7 lifetime at Roland Garros before this week, at the only Major where he’s yet to reach the second week.
Of course it was at this event a year ago when Zverev suffered that gruesome, upsetting ankle injury in the semifinals against Rafael Nadal, ending his 2022 season. He is yet to rediscover his top form this year, with a modest record of 18-14. But Sascha did claim his first two matches this week in straight sets.
Zverev has dominated their history, with a 6-1 edge. However, they haven’t played in over 18 months, and Tiafoe and Zverev are both different players than they were in 2021. Yet on this surface, Sascha should be favored to advance after an extended battle on Saturday night.
Other Notable Matches on Saturday:
Elena Rybakina (4) vs. Sara Sorribes Tormo – It’s hard to find two more polar opposite styles: the power of Rybakina, and the grinding defense of Sorribes Tormo. Neither player has dropped a set to this stage, and Sara took their only previous meeting, two years ago on a hard court in Miami.
Zhizhen Zhang vs. Casper Ruud (4) – Ruud has not repeated his great success from 2022 during 2023, with an 18-11 record to date. Zhizhen made his big breakthrough earlier this year in Madrid, where he won three consecutive third-set tiebreaks over Denis Shapovalov, Cam Norrie, and Taylor Fritz. He is the first Chinese man to win a match at the French Open in 86 years, as he and Wu Yibing continue to break new ground for Chinese tennis.
Ekaterina Alexandrova (23) vs. Beatriz Haddad Maia (14) – This is the farthest Haddad Maia has ever advanced at a Major. This is Alexandrova’s sixth time in the third round of a Slam, but she’s yet to go farther. They’ve played twice before in qualifying for events in 2017, with Beatriz winning both matches.
Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Xinyu Wang – Swiatek won her first two matches by the same score: 6-4, 6-0. And Iga is 4-0 in the third round of Roland Garros. Xinyu is also yet to lose a set, in her best performance at a Major to date.
Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.
Grand Slam Glory Is The Main Goal For America’s Coco Gauff
Coco Gauff has big aspirations and she isn’t afraid to speak openly about them.
Following her second round win over Julia Grabher at the French Open on Thursday, the 19-year-old played down the fixation on her current ranking which is No.6 in the world. Gauff admits that her position is something that doesn’t concern her in the sport unless she is sitting at the top of the world rankings.
“I’m not a ranking person at all. The goal is No.1, and I think that’s when I would care about the ranking,” she stated in her press conference.
“Anything in between two and 10, I mean, I’m going to be honest, it’s not that important to me.”
Gauff first broke into the world’s top 10 in September 2022 and has remained there ever since. At the time she was the youngest top 10 debutant on the WTA Tour since Nicole Vaidisova in 2006. She has been ranked as high as No.4 in the world.
“When I made the top 10, it was a cool accomplishment, but for me it was never about staying there. I only want to go upwards,” she said. “The biggest goal is to win Grand Slams, and I think the ranking will come with Grand Slams.”
It was 12 months ago at Roland Garros where Gauff achieved her best performance at a major by reaching the final before losing in straight sets to Iga Swiatek. The tournament is her best Grand Slam in terms of match wins (13) and is the only one where she has reached the quarter-finals or better on multiple occasions. Gauff also won the French Open girls’ title back in 2018 at the age of just 14.
Five years on from the junior triumph, she has become a regular fixture on the Tour. So much so, that there is already another generation of players on the rise. One of those includes Russia’s Mirra Andreeva who says her ultimate goal in tennis is to break Novak Djokovic’s all-time Grand Slam title record which currently stands at 22. Andreeva, who is only the seventh player under the age of 17 to reach the third round of Roland Garros since 1993, will be Gauff’s next opponent.
“I think she knows the game well, and she’s proved her position to be here and proved in her results in the past, so I don’t think the age thing matters,” Gauff commented on her next opponent.
“I’ve never thought about my age, to be honest. This will be my third time playing someone younger than me.
“Honestly, the first two times I didn’t even think about it because when you step on the court, you just see your opponent, and you don’t really think about the personal side of things. You just see forehand, backhand, serve, and all the same.”
Gauff will play Andreeva on Saturday.
Roland Garros Daily Preview: The Second Week Begins on Sunday
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