Elena Rybakina proved she is a force on any surface as she picked up the second clay court title of her career in Rome with a win against Anhelina Kalinina. While known for her powerful serve and groundstrokes that have propelled her to huge success on faster surfaces over the past year, Rybakina is showing she can be just as effective on the slower clay as well.
Speaking after the victory about her success on the clay in Rome, Rybakina offered the following assessment:
“I think with my game, overall I can play good on all the surfaces. It’s just maybe for clay I need to be ready more physically and maybe have a lot of, like, preparation also, which not always have time to do after (the) hard court season. Overall, I think I can play well on all the surfaces.”
With the victory it’s the first time Rybakina has ascended to the Top 5 in the WTA rankings. Her triumph at Wimbledon last summer came with no ranking points thus keeping her ranking lower than her strong play would indicate. Despite the fact it took her ranking some time to catch-up to her level of play, Rybakina has been considered by most to have been a part of a trio of dominant players on the WTA this year including Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka. Her result this past week in Rome certainly confirms that.
En route to the title in Rome, Rybakina defeated three of her six opponents by virtue of retirements, a truly odd occurrence and one that she clearly took advantage of. In the round of 32 she beat Anna Kalinskaya who withdrew while Rybakina was up a break at 4-3 in the opening set. In the quarter-finals she faced World No. 1 Iga Swiatek who retired with injury while the two were tied at 2-2 in the third set.
In the final, she led 6-4, 1-0 when Kalinina retired with a left-leg injury. The premature ending to that match was a disappointing finish to the women’s tournament which was already hampered by rain and had the start delayed by several hours.
After a torrid beginning to the season on hard courts that saw her make the finals of the Australian Open,l capture the WTA 1000 title in Indian Wells, and make the finals in Miami, Rybkina was not expected to be a huge threat on the red clay. She has proven however that she’s able to rise to the occasion no matter the surface and could make things interesting for others at the French Open.
As for Kalinina, despite having an injury cutting short her first career WTA 1000 final, it was an excellent week of tennis for the 26 year old. She jumps up from No. 47 to No. 25 in the rankings and had wins over seeded players like Madison Keys, Beatriz Haddad Maia and Veronika Kudermetova.
REST OF THE FIELD
Thought to be a lock heading into Roland-Garros at the start of the clay court season, Iga Swiatek is looking perhaps just a little bit vulnerable at the moment due to some injury concerns hanging over her head as the big lead-up tournaments have concluded. In Rome she could not complete her match against eventual champion Rybakina and withdrew while clearly struggling with her right leg. Swiatek has since shared that the injury is not supposed to be serious, but none the less it’s not ideal timing to be dealing with right before a Major event.
Swiatek was having a successful clay court swing overall with a tournament victory in Stuttgart and a finalist result in Madrid where she lost to World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka for her part hit a wall in Rome and was dispatched by 2020 French Open runner-up Sofia Kenin in her opening match 7-6(4), 6-2.
Together the Swiatek/Sabalenka combo should be heavily favoured in Paris but there will be several others hoping to also contend. A couple of players who performed well in Rome include 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko, who has elevated her game in recent weeks, and also Paula Badosa who after taking some time away from the sport last year and dealing with some injury issues as well seems to be rounding back into form on the surface.
Ostapenko made the semifinals in Rome with strong wins against the likes of Sorana Cirstea, Barbora Krejcikova, Daria Kasatkina and the aforementioned Badosa. In particular, Ostapenko seemed to get stronger in her matches against Krejcikova and Kasatkina where she took the final set in each encounter with a bagel. Three of her matches in Rome also went the distance and Ostapenko showed no problems at all with the extra time spent on court.
Badosa has also looked stronger in recent weeks and in Rome she had to beat fourth-seeded Ons Jabeur in the second round as well as a resurgent Karolina Muchova in the round of 16. Badosa made the quarter-finals in of each of the four clay court events she has played this spring and should be considered a strong candidate to do well at Roland-Garros.
It was a humbling experience for Bianca Andreescu who was beaten handily by former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova 6-0, 6-1 in their opening round encounter. Andreescu heads into the next Major of the year in Paris with an 0-2 record on the clay, having also lost in her first match in Madrid three weeks ago. That being said, she’s comfortable on clay and is a dangerous opponent who could get on a roll and still do some damage especially depending on where she lands in the draw.
Leylah Annie Fernandez has similarly struggled in her singles play lately and was taken out in her first match in Rome by Aliaksandra Sasnovich in a closely contested match by a score of 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-3. The 2019 Junior French Open singles winner will be hoping to recapture the magic she displayed a year ago when she almost advanced to the semifinals before being hampered by injury.
The women’s doubles draw saw the fourth-seeded tandem of Elise Mertens and Storm Sanders prevail 6-4, 6-4 over the all-American duo of Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula who were the top seeds in the tournament. This was a rematch of the quarterfinals from the Miami Open in March, where Gauff and Pegula had won 10-2 in a third set tiebreak. Both teams figure to be in the hunt for Roland-Garros with their strong play of late.