To quite an extent, Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka are cut from the same cloth. Both are Eastern Europeans, with a 6 ft-tall frame and big wingspan, and both have similar playing styles – based around keeping rallies short by using their natural power and clean shot-making off both wings from the baseline.
Yet, where they differ vastly is their mentality and approach.
Rybakina is more methodical and stoic, not showing much emotion even when she’s down, and able to rally to come back from deficits. Her celebrations are muted and disappointment is barely visible.
It is an approach that has been effective in the past. She is the reigning Wimbledon champion, a fact that most – including tournament organisers who have given her assignments on the outside courts as recently as the ongoing Australian Open – seem to forget quite easily.
Sabalenka, on the other hand, is more impulsive and expressive. Watching her compete on court is like watching her entire thought process play out – shrugging and frowning in disappointment, roaring at success, criticising herself when things go wrong, and building herself back when they go right.
For long, it is her evident expressiveness that has been cited as a reason for her to disintegrate at high-pressure moments, leaking too many errors when things don’t go her way and finding it hard to come back when she’s down. Despite having unmatchable power and a refined technique from the baseline, this is her first Major final.
However, her explosive form in 2023 – she’s 10-0 without dropping a single set – is also down to that adrenaline-packed approach that has been complimenting her big-hitting game well.
Rybakina’s serenity and experience, or Sabalenka’s explosiveness, could give either the edge coming into the encounter, likely making the mental contest more intriguing than the tactical one, given their similar playing styles.
Serve and return
Their playing styles might be similar, but each rely on distinct strengths and weaknesses.
For Rybakina, it is her superior serve. Per WTA, nearly 50 percent of the first serves she has made during the tournament so far have failed to come back to her side of the court. She has a tournament-leading 44 aces in six matches.
This is in stark contrast to Sabalenka’s serve. While the shot has come in clutch for her after huge improvements recently, having hired a biomechanics specialist to sort out her toss and motion, it has historically been an area of weakness for the Belarusian – who, this time last year, hit 21 double faults in one match at a tune-up event in Adelaide.
This is where Rybakina’s deceptively good return may come into play. The Kazakh has defeated three Major champions – Iga Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka (an Australian Open record) – and has returned very well in each of those matches.
The strength of that shot was on show in particular against Swiatek – the World No. 1 who is perhaps the only active women’s player that can claim to be a cleaner ball-striker than Rybakina. The Kazakh placed her returns, particularly on her forehand, deep into Swiatek’s court, robbing her of time, given that her Western grip involves a longer adjustment from serve to forehand than others.
Sabalenka uses the same grip for both shots, and tends to be put under pressure easily on serve, which could be an area where Rybakina may find a lot of joy.
Power from the baseline
The baseline exchanges are more in Sabalenka’s wheelhouse. In the semifinal and quarterfinal combined, 71 of the 152 points she won in total (about 46 percent) were winners.
For all the tactics and decision-making involved in tennis, there is virtually no answer for the fact that the player on the other side of the net is able to hit winners for half the points they win. It is vindication of Sabalenka’s go-hard or go-home approach, built around easy natural power, and fluid groundstrokes off both wings.
If Sabalenka is able to keep her errors in check, it will be hard for Rybakina to keep up with her from the baseline, especially considering the reluctance she showed in her semifinal win over Azarenka to go down the line with her forehand.
If Sabalenka – who works with a dedicated data analyst for precisely these reasons – can clock in on that, she can push her opponent out wide during the crosscourt forehand exchanges, and open up the court for herself to smash down winners.
For all similarities, and strengths and weaknesses, though, Grand Slam finals in best-of-three-sets tennis can come down to the finest margins. In that case, battles of the mind may well be just as important as battles on the court.