Gauff and Rybakina send warnings to Australian Open rivals with first-week titles

Victories in Auckland Classic and Brisbane International provide ideal Grand Slam preparation for two of the 'Big Four'

Powered by automated translation

The term 'Big Three' has long been associated with the greatest era of men's tennis when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic dominated and transformed the sport.

That same phrase was adopted by women's tennis last season as Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, and Elena Rybakina took a collective stronghold on the WTA Tour. By the end of 2023, their exclusive club brought in one more member; Coco Gauff's sensational form and victory at the US Open expanded the group to a 'Big Four'.

Inevitably, the 'Big Four' are the leading contenders for the Australian Open, so the early weeks of the season provide an ideal opportunity to assess their form and fitness ahead of the first Grand Slam of the year.

On Sunday, two of the group enjoyed extremely productive outings, another a bittersweet day, while the fourth endured nothing short of a disaster.

Gauff and Rybakina, ranked third and fourth respectively, completed their first week of the 2024 season by lifting trophies, Gauff successfully defending her Auckland Classic title, and Rybakina victorious at the Brisbane International.

Gauff was forced to grind and dig deep against former world No 3 Elina Svitolina, who appeared troubled by a foot problem, but the American ultimately prevailed in an entertaining final to win 6-7, 6-3, 6-3.

"I don’t know if I was expecting this result, but I’m really happy with how I managed to play today," Gauff said. "I think today level-wise was definitely not my best match or best level this week, but sometimes when you win when you’re not playing your best, it makes you feel more satisfied."

She may only be 19 years old with plenty of her generational potential still to realise, yet Gauff is already one of the best players in the world – a breakthrough 2023 comprising four titles, a first major triumph, and a career-high ranking made sure of that.

With elevated status comes increased pressure and expectations, both internally and externally, although Gauff has been dealing with extreme hype ever since she reached the Wimbledon fourth round at 15. She is clearly comfortable among the elite and her victory in Auckland, the seventh title of her career, sent out an early warning to her rivals ahead of the Australian Open.

Yet, the most significant statement of intent was delivered in Brisbane. In a rematch of last year's Australian Open final, Rybakina made a mockery of Sabalenka's 15-match winning run on Australian soil by dominating the world No 2 6-0, 6-3 in a brisk one hour and 13 minutes.

The first set, in which Rybakina lost just four points on serve while Sabalenka won only seven on hers, lasted a mere 24 minutes. The second frame threatened to become a little more competitive when Sabalenka broke back to trail 2-1, but her Kazakh opponent remained relentless, and after Sabalenka took a medical timeout to address an issue with her leg, Rybakina put her foot down to break again for 3-1 and ease to victory.

"Despite the score, it's always tough to play against you," Rybakina, 23, said on court after being presented with the trophy. "We always push each other and I think that's great. We improve this way, so hopefully we continue."

While Sabalenka still leads their head-to-head 5-3, significantly Rybakina has now won three of their four most recent encounters, and the manner of Sunday's lop-sided victory will only boost her confidence and belief when she makes her way to Melbourne Park.

Assessed in isolation, this could be viewed as a catastrophic result for Sabalenka. It's never ideal to be on the receiving end of such a beatdown, particularly against a chief rival a week before a major title defence, although she will be pleased with her form leading up to the final, which she reached entirely untroubled without dropping a set.

The Belarusian will also hope the leg issue that was troubling her is not too significant so close to the Australian Open.

"First of all, Elena, whoa," Sabalenka said with a laugh, her demeanour suggesting she won't be dwelling too long on this particular result. "That was an interesting match. Thanks for those three games. At least we made it look like a fight."

As for the leading member of the 'Big Four', world No 1 Swiatek was busy down the coast in Sydney leading Poland's efforts in the United Cup.

The four-time major champion won all five of her singles matches, including a straight-sets victory over Germany's former Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber in Sunday's final, although she and Poland had to settle for runners-up after losing the mixed doubles decider alongside Hubert Hurkacz.

"I feel like I really improved during the pre-season and I'm happy that I played such solid matches here," Swiatek, 22, said. "It's really fun and it's really exciting to play with my teammates and for Poland."

So, overall a first week of the season befitting the 'Big Four' label and one that has only heightened the sense of anticipation ahead of the Australian Open.

Updated: January 07, 2024, 2:29 PM