Iga Restores Order

Iga Restores Order

The WTA has a Big Three, but on clay there is still only one.

The WTA has a Big Three, but on clay there is still only one.

By Giri NathanMay 10, 2024

Iga in Rome. // Getty

Iga in Rome. // Getty

Some tennis heads seemed reluctant to acknowledge the emergence of a Big Three on the WTA. Perhaps they were afraid of setting themselves up for disappointment. Sports stories don’t often play out as telegenically as fans might hope. For example, it wasn’t so long ago that I foresaw a thrilling era of rivalry between Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka, and Bianca Andreescu; they are now retired, reemerging, and perma-injured, respectively. Not a whole lot of rivalry there. But there’s no longer any denying the sparks between Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina, and Aryna Sabalenka, who sit at first, second, and third in the singles race this season. Each woman leads the head-to-head against precisely one other woman, and they are all getting consistent enough to ensure that they clash in high-stakes matches every few weeks. Last week’s action in Madrid included two such matches involving this talented trio, and I came away thinking, Big Three, yes—but on the dirt at least, it’s still the Big One, the unassailable Iga Swiatek.

It was Swiatek vs. Sabalenka in the Madrid final last weekend, for the second straight year, and if they had a standing appointment in this final every year, I’d have no complaints. In Madrid’s high-altitude conditions, balls fly faster through the air; big hitters and servebots seem to thrive here relative to other clay courts. It clearly works out for Sabalenka, as it’s the only clay tournament she’s ever won, and she’s done it twice (beating the then world No. 1 both times, too). In the 2023 final, she repelled Swiatek in three sets, a match she described last week as the best she’s ever played. It was a breakthrough in her career, proof that the leader she’d been chasing—the player whose own elite fitness had inspired Sabalenka to undergo an intense conditioning block—was actually beatable on her preferred surface. The margins were thin, with Sabalenka winning 88 points and Swiatek winning 85.

This year’s Madrid rematch was somehow even more brilliant. At three hours and 11 minutes, it was the longest WTA final of the season so far, and easily one of the highest-level matches of the past several years, full of rallies that drew out the finest characteristics of both players, Iga’s aggro-control and Aryna’s all-out ballistics. This time it was Swiatek’s turn to squeak out a victory, after surviving three Sabalenka match points. Here again the margin was thin: The winner took 121 points to the loser’s 116. For Swiatek, this win restored a familiar hierarchy: a second consecutive win over Sabalenka, giving her a 7–3 lead in a matchup that looked, this time last year, like it might just be leveling out. And as for the runner-up, an imminent birthday only deepened the pain of loss: “I’m going to be in a bad mood. I am 26 tomorrow. It sucks.”

After the match, Swiatek said she cut through the stress by remembering her idol Rafa Nadal’s comeback in his 2022 Australian Open final. She is busy building up a clay résumé that would make Rafa proud. By winning Madrid, Swiatek assembled a complete collector’s set of the big titles on clay. This week in Rome she has continued that form, advancing to the third round; she’s now 15–2 at the tournament. At Roland-Garros, her career tally there is an even more imposing 28–2. As lively as these potential new rivalries are, don’t get it twisted: Clay season is Iga season, an ideal showcase for her topspin and staggering court coverage. She’s healthy, she’s tearing apart all early-round foes, and she has now reasserted herself in a key matchup against one of the few players who can trip her up. I’m open to potential intrigue, but fully expecting title No. 4 in Paris.

The Hopper

Speaking of Stan Smith, don’t miss Craig Shapiro’s interview with him on the Craig Shapiro Tennis Podcast (or, for that matter, his latest episode, featuring Grigor Dimitrov.)

—And it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for: Giri takes on Challengers.

—Jack Draper contemplates life without tennis (and he’s not into it.)

—Camila Giorgi appears to have retired.

—And Dominic Thiem is likely next.

—Billie Jean King (finally) gets a Wheaties box.


Ons Jabeur is Frustrated.