And then there were four! On Friday at the BNP Paribas Open, tennis’ version of March Madness continues with women’s semifinal action. Get primed on pivotal matchups between the top-seeded Iga Swiatek and Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, as well as a blockbuster between No.2-seeded Aryna Sabalenka and 2022 Indian Wells women’s singles runner-up Maria Sakkari.
Read on for a preview of both popcorn-worthy Friday matchups…GET 2023 BNP PARIBAS OPEN TICKETS
Aryna Sabalenka’s 2023 has been a dream. Mired in a crisis of confidence in 2022, serving double-faults at an alarming rate and unable to find the key to success on the big stage, she went without a single title – that was the nightmare.
2022 was a tough year but it never crushed Sabalenka’s will. In 2023, she has emerged as a legitimate force on tour. After doing the work to revamp her serve – and her self-belief – she plays this year’s BNP Paribas Open as a newly minted Grand Slam champion.
That’s a fact that isn’t lost on her semifinal opponent, No. 7-seeded Maria Sakkari.
“I knew that she was gonna win a Grand Slam. It actually came, and I was very happy for her,” Sakkari said after winning her quarterfinal match against Petra Kvitova. “She’s a very nice girl. She’s very fun to be around. It’s going to be very, very tough, because she’s feeling the ball really well.”
Feeling the ball well is a bit of an understatement in this case. Sabalenka is actually tearing the cover of the ball as she produces some of the most colossal strikes that the women’s game has seen in quite some time. And she’s not just hitting it hard from the baseline, she’s also serving like a dynamo.
Against Coco Gauff in the semis, Sabalenka dropped just nine points on serve in the match. At 16-1 in the season, with a win this week over the only player that has defeated her in 2023 (Barbora Krejcikova), the No.2 seed has finally entered the prime of her career.
And the Grand Slam title has helped her transform her mindset. No longer volatile or prone to doubt, she’s a pillar of confidence.
“Before, I didn’t have a slam, and every time I felt so much pressure from myself, because I really wanted to get it,” Sabalenka said after her win over Gauff. “Every time something would happen, I would lose like really close match just because I really want it and I would miss so many easy shots.
“Right now it’s given me more belief and understanding what I have to do on those important matches.”
Sakkari, who has been the most resilient performer in the women’s draw, winning three matches from a set down and going 4-0 in deciders, will have to find something special to take Sabalenka out of her sweet spot.
The Greek has demonstrated her tenacity, winning without her best stuff through four round, but she’ll have to up the efficiency to get past a world-class athlete who has been treeing ever since the new year began.
“She’s gonna be a different player, and I respect that. I’m ready for it,” Sakkari said.
When Elena Rybakina took down World No.1 Iga Swiatek at this year’s Australian Open, she believed she had nothing to lose. Playing free, coming out of her shoes to rip returns, the Kazakh engineered a major upset in the round of 16 and plowed on to reach her second major final in Melbourne.
A reporter wanted to know if Rybakina, two months later, still felt there was nothing to lose as she prepared for another showdown with the World No.1.
“I’m trying not to think about this, just because, as I said, it’s different conditions,” Rybakina explained. “It also depends a lot how physically I feel, like I’m kind of realistic in these things.”
That cool, calm and collected side of Rybakina continues to shine through ahead of the pair’s latest mammoth matchup.
“I know that, of course, if I am gonna bring my best tomorrow, there is chances that I’m gonna win,” she continued.
Those chances may be less than they were two months ago in Australia, given how well Swiatek has performed in the California desert over the last two years. Now riding a 10-match winning streak at the BNP Paribas Open, Swiatek is bidding to complete the first successful women’s singles title defense at Indian Wells since Martina Navratilova in 1991.
The way she’s bossing the court, it’s hard to imagine any other outcome. The Pole has won her last 16 sets in the California desert, and dropped more than three games in only four of those.
That said, Rybakina proved that she can match Swiatek on the big stage in Australia, and over the last 52 weeks she has emerged as one of the premier talents in the women’s game, with a Wimbledon title and an Australian Open final to her name.
The edge goes to Swiatek on the slower surface, and in a venue she has embraced, but we’ve already learned the dangers of sleeping on Rybakina and her powerful, efficient game.GET 2023 BNP PARIBAS OPEN TICKETS