Tennis: Elena Rybakina serves up a warning by overpowering world No. 1 Iga Swiatek at Australian Open

Elena Rybakina during the women's singles match on day seven of the Australian Open tennis tournament on Jan 22, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE - Spectators passing by Rod Laver Arena on Sunday afternoon might have wondered at the occasional sound of heavy artillery coming from within. The scoreboard will have quickly solved any mystery. Elena Rybakina, 23, was inside and perhaps no one in tennis fires serves quite like her.

In her first service game, the No. 22 seed spun a kicking second-serve ace on her second point and rifled a first-serve ace on her seventh point. Good afternoon, she was saying to the No.1 seed Iga Swiatek, who she then outplayed 6-4, 6-4 in 89 minutes. Most days the Polish star is better than everyone in the world. Which only means that Rybakina on Sunday was somewhat out of this world.

“For sure,” said the 1.84m Rybakina later of her serve, “it’s my strength and weapon”. In round one she produced the equal-fastest women’s serve at this Open at 195kmh (quicker than 16 men in the draw), but Sunday wasn’t even her most bullying day. Still she won 80 per cent of first serve points and on average hit first serves 16kmh faster than Swiatek. The Polish player’s playlist includes old-time rockers Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, but Rybakina – who hit 24 winners to Swiatek’s 15 – was at times churning out her own irresistible heavy metal tennis.

Rybakina kept her cool even as she generated pace from every angle. Swiatek barked the odd “come on” and screamed at one point, but the Kazakhstan player, born in Moscow, offered no evidence of emotion. Restraint is her style and even at Wimbledon in 2022 she finally wept only when asked about her parents but then quipped to the press room, “you wanted to see emotion”.

Actually we wish to see greatness and on Sunday, in a match more scrappy than sensational, she displayed a champion’s poise. She exchanged breaks with Swiatek in the first set before breaking to 4-3 with a backhand return which whistled cross-court.

When the Pole strode to a 3-0 lead in the second set, order looked restored, but Rybakina’s response was telling. She broke Swiatek twice and this stealing back of momentum from a world No.1 was an act of impudent beauty. It told us she has nerve but also that Swiatek wasn’t completely herself.

Subtlety wasn’t in Rybakina’s vocabulary on Sunday and she played like a policewoman kicking down doors. For an introverted person, her entire being is tuned to aggression. “I knew,” she said later, “that I had to be aggressive from the first ball because she’s a great mover and she defends really well. So I was trying to just attack her from the first ball and it really worked well.”

She employs a flat-hitting style of fine margins which doesn’t encourage extended exchanges and across two sets she and Swiatek had only four rallies beyond nine shots. To give it some context, the endlessly arguing Andy Murray and Roberto Bautista Agut had 59 rallies over nine shots on Saturday across four sets.

Iga Swiatek during her fourth-round loss to Elena Rybakina at the Australian Open on Sunday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Both women’s players are at fascinating places in their careers. Swiatek, unarguably the tour’s leading light, said, “I maybe wanted it a little bit too hard. So I’m going to try to chill out a little bit more”. She has to manage her greatness, Rybakina is trying to demonstrate hers. She is the world No.25, but it is a misleading ranking. Wimbledon was stripped of its points for banning Russian players, so she received no points for winning.

Having written history with her racket, Rybakina picked up a pen. From the stands caps were handed down to her and pleas sent for balls to be autographed. She even took a phone from a fan, turned around and patiently took a wefie. These mementos are worth keeping, for this somewhat ignored talent might go a long way.

When Rybakina, her game still being polished, showed up at the Australian Open she was, one might argue, rudely received. The reigning Wimbledon champion was dismissed to Court No.13 for her first round, suggesting that the major courts are an honour reserved for those with somewhat heftier CVs.

If she is miffed then she has mostly disguised it behind a gentle smile but on Sunday, finally invited to Rod Laver Arena this year, she provided the most eloquent and irrefutable proof. Any grand arena, her performance insisted, is lucky to host her.

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