At its highest level tennis is about solving problems, and creating them for your opponents. Often it’s pitched as a battle of guile against strength, deft touch against overwhelming force.
The women’s draw of this Australian Open has seen power win out.
This final sees a battle of arguably the two most powerful players of the tournament so far. The two have the equal fastest serves this Australian Open, and have hit some of the hardest groundstrokes to boot.
Defending Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina stands on one side of the net, having chalked up the most aces per match so far in the tournament. Rybakina has dropped just one set so far and has dominated throughout.
On the other side stands Aryna Sabalenka, who is still searching for her first Grand Slam singles title. Sabalenka has blasted players off the court with her powerful ground strokes — clocking over 180km/h. So far in 2023 Sabalenka has yet to lose a single set, winning the Adelaide title before heading to Melbourne. Only three players have won their first 10 matches in straight sets this century.
Both players came into the tournament under seeded, due to the chaos that was 2022. Both have proven that they are right at the top end of the current WTA tour. But only one can take away the 2023 Australian Open crown, in what shapes to be a battle of the big hitters.
So who will have the power and the passion to win the title?
A year ago, Sabalenka faced one of the hardest issues for a tennis player — the loss of her serve. Just before the Australian Open Sabalenka resorted to serving underhanded to get the ball in play. It robbed one of the world’s best players of arguably her biggest weapon — her dominating first serve.
No player double faulted more than Sabalenka did in 2022 — giving away 428 free points, a full 139 more than the next worst in Ekaterina Alexandrova.
Instead of a deep run at last year’s first slam, the serving issues cruelled her run before it really started. The issues cropped up through the year as she worked through both the physical and psychological issues with the stroke.
Those issues with her serve have largely been held at bay in Melbourne this year, with Sabalenka able to get the ball in play with great effect. Although she doesn’t get her first serve in at a high rate, she has made the most of it when she has. Sabalenka has won more than 70 per cent of points on her first serve in all her matches so far at the Australian Open, a significant improvement on last season.
When she gets the ball in play she lets her powerful forehand do a lot of the damage. Sabalenka alternates between powerfully hit, flatter balls and heavy, heavy topspin. In the last year she has excelled at hitting the inside out, or cross-court, forehand.
What makes the shot especially powerful is her ability to change it up and hit winners down the line. It forces opponents into deeper positions on court, and into survival mode.
Sabalenka often kills points before it even gets to that stage. Her points are amongst the shortest on tour. The counter to this is that sometimes she is prone to errors on these strokes, trying to bite off a little too much.
But so far in 2023 it has worked in spades. Heading into the final, Sabalenka is planning on sticking what has worked so far, despite the bigger stage.
“”I’m not going to do something extra. I think that’s OK to feel a little bit nervous. It’s a big tournament, big final. If you’re going to start trying to do something about that, it’s going to become bigger, you know?” Sabalenka said post match.
“There is still one more match to go. I just want to stay focused.”
Rewarding the champ
For many, if not most, tennis players, winning Wimbledon is the ultimate goal. That is, unless you are from Australia, the USA or France.
The grass courts of Wimbledon represent the history of lawn tennis, and is the site of many of the game’s finest moments. While some of their traditions may be a little outdated, winning on the green grass remains the pinnacle of the game.
Last year’s Wimbledon was a little different however. Coming off a COVID cancellation in 2020 and uncertainty in 2021, the 2022 Championships were meant to be a return to normalcy.
Instead, the invasion of Ukraine and the unnecessary human cost of the unprovoked battles spilled in a relatively small way onto the turf of SW19. The Lawn Tennis Association, organisers of Wimbledon, made the call to ban all Russian and Belarusian players from the Championships. That meant Sabalenka, amongst others, was forced to watch from home.
In return, the WTA and ATP made the decision to withhold ranking points to the participants. While prize money and, more importantly, the acclaim of the public would still be handed out, it wouldn’t help anyone’s quest to world number one.
No player was hurt more than Rybakina. Before Wimbledon 2022, the Kazakh had never advanced past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Then she caught fire. Led by her dominant serve she took all before her and the much vaunted Wimbledon title.
That title hasn’t helped her at other tournaments, however. Her ranking stayed put at 23, and Rybakina has faced tough draw after tough draw since. If that title counted the same way other Grand Slam titles did, Rybakina would have entered the Australian Open as a top 10 seed.
Instead the Moscow-born player has had to beat three players seeded higher just to make it to the final, including dominant world number one Iga Świątek. Rybakina has passed every challenge thrown her way with flying colours, with only 2022 Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins really pushing her along the way.
“I’m super happy to be in the final and ready to give everything I have left.” Rybakina said after making the final.
It has been that serve that has driven much of her success in Melbourne, with opponents struggling to get a look in. Not only does Rybakina lead the way with the most aces so far, opponents have only been able to successfully return serve just shy of half the time. That’s even better than her stellar rate last year.
Rybakina’s opponents have only been able to force 25 break points so far. By contrast the utterly dominant Sabalenka has allowed 31 opportunities so far.
Rybakina shows similar power to Sabalenka, although she tends to hit flatter, lower spin balls on both sides. She is more equal on both wings, with her backhand perhaps being slightly stronger than the forehand side.
Rybakina rarely unleashes winning inside out forehands, instead opting to paint the lines where possible. While her service game is one of the best in the game, she sometimes struggles as points drag out.
How they match up
Rybakina and Sabalenka have faced just three times before, with Belarus’s Sabalenka taking all three encounters. However, all three matches were pushed to three sets, and all three occurred before Rybakina’s breakthrough 2022 season.
The key to success for both players is oddly similar — dominating their service games. Short, sharp games on serve will be key for both players to establish their rhythm in the match, and put pressure on their opponent’s serve.
That is, on paper at least, a weakness for both players coming into 2023. However, both have put pressure on their opponents’ serves so far on the way to the final.
Given the power both players display on serve, how well each player can solve the other’s serve will be key.
Expect a sharp encounter, full of stinging shorts and stellar serving. Whoever can harness the power of not only the crowd and conditions, but also the opponent on court, will walk away with the title.