Elena Rybakina again proved too much for world number one Iga Swiatek, denying the defending champion a return to the Indian Wells final with an emphatic 6-2, 6-2 semi-final victory on Friday.
Moscow-born Kazakh Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion who stunned top-seeded Swiatek in the fourth round of the Australian Open on the way to the final, will now get a chance to turn the tables on Aryna Sabalenka, who beat her in Melbourne to capture a first Grand Slam title.
World number two Sabalenka advanced with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over seventh-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece.
Rybakina, ranked 10th in the world, was all over Swiatek from the opening game, painting the lines with her punishing ground strokes and serving with pinpoint precision.
Swiatek, winner of the French and US Opens last year in a campaign that included eight titles in all, simply had no answer and surrendered the first set with a double-fault on the first set point.
It was more of the same in the second as Rybakina raced to a 5-0 lead. Swiatek, who revealed after the match she was dealing with “discomfort” in her ribcage, finally managed a hold for 5-1, and pounced to break as Rybakina suddenly struggled with her first serve in the next game.
Rybakina still managed to muster two match points at 40-15, but Swiatek saved one with an overhead and another with a blistering return of a second serve, winning two more points to complete the break for 5-2.
But there would be no comeback. A mis-hit as Swiatek appeared to trip chasing a ball back to the baseline gave Rybakina another match point and she converted it with confidence.
“I didn’t expect that I was going to play that good today,” admitted Rybakina, who battled through three sets to beat Czech Karolina Muchova in the quarter-finals.
“Hopefully I’m going to play like this on Sunday,” she added after denying Swiatek’s bid to become the first woman since Martina Navratilova in 1990-91 to win back-to-back titles in the California desert.
Swiatek, who said she still expected to defend her title at the Miami Open that starts next week, was disappointed she couldn’t execute her coach’s ideas for stopping Rybakina.
“We were thinking about the Australian Open more like we wanted to kind of learn a lesson from that match,” she said. “I wanted to kind of use his tips and improve my game. But I wasn’t able to do that today.”
Sabalenka had to battle back from a set down to beat Rybakina in the Australian Open final, and the Kazakh was optimistic she could avenge that defeat in the looming battle of reigning Grand Slam champions.
“If I play like today, I think I have all the chances,” she said.
Sabalenka out-dueled Sakkari in a Stadium Court slugfest.
Playing with supreme confidence, Sabalenka opened with a quick service hold that featured two aces and broke Sakkari for a 3-1 lead.
Sakkari immediately broke back as Sabalenka double-faulted on break point. But the Belarusian won the next five games to pocket the set and take a 2-0 lead in the second.
Sakkari, perhaps trying to do too much in the face of Sabalenka’s powerful groundstrokes, made three forehand errors to give her triple set point.
She saved two with a service winner and an ace but fired another forehand out of the court on the third.
Sabalenka was rolling, breaking Sakkari again with a blistering backhand service return up the line for a 2-0 lead in the second.
But she gave the break back with a sloppy service game and Sakkari held to level the set before Sabalenka steadied to win three straight games.
Sabalenka said she might have let the match get away in past years, but she’s playing now with a new sense of calm.
“In past I lost so many matches like that, just like a few not super-smart mistakes,” she said. “I was reminding myself it’s OK to make these mistakes, I’m not a robot. I can miss these shots and probably that’s why I was able to keep fighting and keep trying.”
After Sakkari let two game points go in the sixth game, Sabalenka drilled another service return winner for a third break chance of the game, which she seized with a crosscourt forehand.
Sabalenka inished the match with 21 winners to Sakkari’s nine as she denied her opponent a return to the Indian Wells final.