MELBOURNE, Australia — Down a set to Elena Rybakina, women’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek left Rod Laver Arena for a bathroom break and pored through her handwritten notes.
But as much as she studied, and as much as she hustled once the quick-strike rallies resumed, Swiatek could not find an answer to Rybakina’s power game as she was beaten 6-4 6-4 in the fourth round of the Australian Open on Sunday.
Though Swiatek went up a break of serve and 3-0 in the second set, she could not hold that lead as Rybakina won six of the final seven games to prevail, serving out the victory at love.
“In the end, I think in the important moments I played really well,” said Rybakina in her on-court interview. “So it made the difference.”
In terms of seedings, this was a major upset. Rybakina, a big-serving 6-footer from Kazakhstan, is seeded No. 22. Swiatek is ranked No. 1, by a large mathematical margin.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
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But the numbers do not tell the whole story. This was a duel between the only two reigning Grand Slam singles champion still active in the sport. Ashleigh Barty, the former No. 1, won the Australian Open last year but retired in March at age 25.
In Barty’s absence, Swiatek quickly took command of the women’s game, winning the French Open, the U.S. Open and six other titles. But Rybakina won Wimbledon, with her flat and forceful strokes a perfect fit for the grass of the All England Club.
Rybakina received no ranking points for that victory, however, because the tours had stripped Wimbledon of points in retaliation for its decision to bar Russian and Belarusian players from the tournament after the invasion of Ukraine.
Rybakina, born and raised in Russia before switching allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2018, was not affected by the ban, but without the 2,000 points normally allotted to the singles champion, she did not get a rankings boost for her victory.
With those points, she would be comfortably in the top 10.
Nor has Rybakina been granted some of the perks that usually come with a Wimbledon title. She has often been relegated to outside courts instead of the main stadiums at tour and Grand Slam events. She played her opening-round match at this Australian Open on Court 13, while Swiatek opened the night session in Rod Laver Arena.
But she was impossible to ignore on center stage on Sunday as she smacked six aces and four return winners and repeatedly rushed the fleet-footed Swiatek with her groundstrokes, all delivered with her trademark equanimity.
“Of course I’m nervous,” she said. “My coach is saying I actually need to show my emotions sometimes, so I am also learning.”
Shortly after Rybakina’s victory, Coco Gauff lost 7-5 6-3 to Jelena Ostapenko, who will face Rybakina in the quarterfinals.
In their only previous match against each other, Swiatek defeated Rybakina 7-6 (5), 6-2 in 2021 in the quarterfinals of an indoor event in Ostrava in the Czech Republic. But this was their first meeting in a major tournament and could mark the start of a rivalry.
Swiatek is 21; Rybakina, 23. Though Swiatek has been particularly dominant on clay with her heavy forehand and excellent movement, Rybakina clearly has the tools to pose trouble for anyone on the game’s faster surfaces. With her height and reach, she is able to handle Swiatek’s high-bouncing topspin and kick serve with greater ease than most opponents, and her pure ball striking can be overwhelming when she is on target.
Swiatek, despite her speed, was often a long way from Rybakina’s winners on Sunday, and Rybakina had consistent success hitting behind Swiatek and forcing her to change direction in a hurry. Rybakina also pounded deep returns at Swiatek’s body, giving her little time to make the big grip change from her serve to her forehand.
It was quite a package, and Swiatek was clearly rattled down the stretch, shouting toward her box in frustration in the final game and barely moving to cover Rybakina’s final winner — a forehand down the middle of the court.
Swiatek was the player of the year, no doubt, in 2022, but she has faltered in the two most recent significant tournaments: losing in the semifinals of the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas, to Aryna Sabalenka in November, and now losing in the fourth round in Melbourne, where she reached the semifinals last year.