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.