Elena Rybakina again proved too much for world number one Iga Swiatek, denying the defending champion a return to the Indian Wells final with an emphatic 6-2, 6-2 victory in the semi-final on Friday.
Moscow-born Kazakh Rybakina, the defending Wimbledon champion who stunned top seed Swiatek in the fourth round of the Australian Open en route to the final, will now have a chance to turn the tide against Aryna Sabalenka, who defeated her in Melbourne to win their first Grand Slam title.
World number two Sabalenka advanced with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over seventh seed Maria Sakkari of Greece.
Rybakina, ranked 10th in the world, bested Swiatek from the opening game, painting the lines with her punishing groundstrokes and serving with pinpoint accuracy.
Swiatek, winner of last year’s French and US Opens in a campaign that included eight titles in all, simply had no answer and gave up the first set with a double fault on the first set point.
It was more of the same in the second as Rybakina raced to a 5-0 lead. Swiatek, who revealed after the match that he had been dealing with “discomfort” in his ribcage, finally managed to hold on at 5-1 and took advantage to break when Rybakina suddenly struggled with his first serve in the next game.
Rybakina still managed two match points at 40-15, but Swiatek saved one with an overload and another with a blistering return of a second serve, earning two more points to complete the break 5-2.
But there would be no going back. An error when Swiatek appeared to stumble chasing a ball back to the baseline gave Rybakina another match point and she confidently converted it.
“I didn’t expect to play so well today,” admitted Rybakina, who struggled in three sets to defeat Czech Karolina Muchova in the quarterfinals.
“I hope to play like that on Sunday,” she added after denying Swiatek’s bid to become the first woman since Martina Navratilova in 1990-91 to win back-to-back titles in the California desert.
Swiatek, who said she still hopes to defend her title at the Miami Open starting next week, was disappointed that she was unable to execute on her coach’s ideas to stop Rybakina.
“We were thinking about the Australian Open more as if we wanted to learn a lesson from that match,” she said. “I wanted to use your tips and improve my game. But I couldn’t do that today.”
Sabalenka had to bounce back from a setback to defeat Rybakina in the Australian Open final, and the Kazakh was optimistic she could avenge that defeat in the impending battle of the reigning Grand Slam champions.
“If I play like today I think I have every chance,” she said.
– Stadium Court Slugfest –
Sabalenka beat Sakkari in a stadium duel.
Playing with supreme confidence, Sabalenka opened with a fast serve that featured two aces and broke Sakkari to a 3-1 lead.
Sakkari immediately broke when Sabalenka double-faulted on break point. But the Belarusian won the next five games to pocket the set and open up a 2-0 lead in the second.
Sakkari, perhaps trying to do too much in the face of Sabalenka’s powerful groundstrokes, made three forehand errors to take his triple set point.
She saved two with a service winner and an ace, but fired another forehand out of bounds on the third.
Sabalenka was rolling, breaking Sakkari again with a blistering backhand serve, returning to the line for a 2-0 lead in the second.
But she turned it around with a sloppy service game and Sakkari held on to level the set before Sabalenka stabilized to win three games in a row.
Sabalenka said he may have let the game slip in recent years, but he is now playing with a new sense of calm.
“In the past I’ve lost so many games like this, just a few unintelligent mistakes,” she said. “I was reminding myself that it’s okay to make those mistakes, I’m not a robot. I can miss those shots and that’s probably why I was able to keep fighting and trying.”
After Sakkari was down two game points in game six, Sabalenka drilled another game-winning service return for a third half-time chance of the game, which she capitalized on with a cross forehand.
Sabalenka ended the match with 21 wins to Sakkari’s nine, denying their opponents a return to the Indian Wells final.