Elena Rybakina beats Danielle Collins to set up Iga Swiatek encounter
- Wimbledon champion beats last year’s runner-up 6-2, 5-7, 6-2
- Match will be first meeting of grand slam winners since July 2021
Barely a month after Elena Rybakina won Wimbledon last year, she did not feel like a grand slam champion. She entered the US Open ranked world No 25, having received no points from the WTA-sanctioned All England Club, and lost her first-round match. In straight sets. Against the 131st-ranked Clara Burel. On Court 12.
On Monday the 23-year-old Moscow-born Kazakh opened her 2023 Australian Open campaign on Court 13 and has flown somewhat under the radar all week, despite her subsequent promotion to the show courts. “Well, I guess it’s a motivation to win even more,” she said on Friday. “Maybe next time they’re going to put me first match somewhere else, not the Court 13.”
If ever there was a sign her march is destined for Rod Laver Arena, it was her third-round defeat of last year’s runner-up. Danielle Collins does not go easily. The American, with her signature resolve, pushed her to three sets on Kia Arena. But Rybakina is back in form and looking every bit the player who swept aside Bianca Andreescu, Simona Halep and Ons Jabeur en route to her first grand slam title.
Her first-serve win percentage hovered in the 80s and 83 minutes passed before Collins fashioned a break point, from which she secured the second set before falling 6-2, 5-7, 6-2. “I’m feeling better, stronger,” Rybakina said. “So hopefully I can continue like this. Compared [to the] middle of the season, it was a bit tough for me because I was trying to play many tournaments … I would say I didn’t have good preparation for [the] hard-court season after Wimbledon. Definitely now I’m feeling much better.”
This can only be a good thing given her next opponent also seems to be getting better. Iga Swiatek finished 2022 with two majors and nine months atop the rankings. Almost a fortnight after Rybakina’s premature departure from Flushing Meadows, Swiatek left with the trophy, and at Melbourne Park her dominance is yet to be tested. On Friday she punished Cristina Bucsa, the Moldova-born Spanish qualifier who had shocked Andreescu out of the tournament, but against the Polish 21-year-old Bucsa appeared nervous and destined for a double-bagel. When she finally won a game, the crowd at Margaret Court Arena roared in encouragement, only for Swiatek to serve out the match for a regulation 6-0, 6-1 win.
“I felt like I’m in a little bit of a flow, so that’s nice,” said Swiatek. “I always try to focus on the same stuff, pretty technical stuff. It doesn’t matter if I’m winning or losing, it’s all the same to help me stay disciplined.
“I’ve always wanted to be that kind of player who is consistent, so I’m pretty happy that I’m achieving that goal. I just remember how it was a couple of years ago: when I was in the fourth round I was really exhausted. Right now I feel like this is the right place to be.”
The Swiatek v Rybakina last-16 showdown will be the first meeting of reigning grand slam champions since July 2021, when Ash Barty defeated Barbora Krejcikova in the Cincinnati Open quarter-finals. Both know what is coming, with Rybakina describing Swiatek as “very strong physically and mentally” and Swiatek saying Rybakina “really is a solid player”.
“Since we played juniors, I knew that she’s like kind of going the right direction,” Swiatek said. “With her serve, she can do a lot.
“But tactically I’m not prepared yet. We played exhibition in Dubai. I really treated [that loss in December] as a practice so it’s hard kind of to take a lot from that match. Also, we played in Ostrava two years ago [a win] and the surface was so slow it’s also hard to take anything tactically from that. We have both made such progress it doesn’t really matter what happened a couple of years ago.”
This side of the draw gets interesting from there, with the second week tossing up a quarter-final against either Coco Gauff or Jelena Ostapenko, who defeated Bernarda Pera and Kateryna Baindl respectively on Friday. Jessica Pegula, the third seed, progressed in the draw’s other half after making short work of Marta Kostyuk and will face Krejcikova for a place in the quarter-finals.