With the disintegration of the Big Three last year, the tennis world lost a poetic wordplay that had helped identify the sport’s greatest players for over a decade and half. With Roger Federer now retired, Rafael Nadal almost there and Novak Djokovic the last man standing, the Three have been reduced to under two.
But followers of sport like to hang on to memories and established nomenclatures. The linear passing of the title would have been to the triumvirate of 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, 21-year-old Jannik Sinner and 20-year-old Holger Rune.
But a new rivalry blossoming on the women’s tour, rebuilding since the retirement of Serena Williams, who cast a long shadow on women’s tennis, has added a novel twist to the Big Three idea. Iga Świątek, 21, the dominant world No.1, has Aryna Sabalenka, 25, and Elena Rybakina, 23, hot on her heels, forming a vibrant rivalry that promises much.
In rankings, they are a convenient numbers 1, 2, 3. Their rivalry is peaking in 2023, with each beating the other on different occasions in a see-saw battle that leaves little scope for predictions—except for slight advantages based on playing surfaces. It’s a three-way contest that may resurrect women’s tennis which, after years of Williams’ dominance, seemed to meander between multiple, fleeting aspirants, barring the brief sparks provided by Naomi Osaka and Emma Radukanu.
It’s a battle that could outshine the Alcaraz-Sinner-Rune combination. Multiple-time Grand Slam champion and now commentator Mats Wilander already sees Świątek as the Nadal of the new Big Three; and Rybakina as Djokovic.
The new Big Three currently hold all the Grand Slam titles—Świątek has the French and US Opens, Rybakina will defend Wimbledon and Sabalenka got the Australian Open in January. Before the French Open in May, the three players split the three biggest European clay court tournaments, adding further credence to their competitiveness.
Poland’s Świątek leads Belarusian Sabalenka 5-3 on head-to-head matches, with both winning one of the two finals they contested this year. She trails 1-3 to Kazakhstan’s Rybakina, losing to her both times this year—in straight sets at Indian Wells and retiring hurt in the Rome quarter-final. But Sabalenka leads Rybakina 4-1, with both splitting one final each this year.
If 2022 was the year of Świątek and this year started with Sabalenka’s first Grand Slam win in Melbourne, 2023 is increasingly seeming like Rybakina’s year, which could peak at The Championships in Wimbledon starting 3 July.
“(Rybakina is my favourite to win at the All England Club) because she’s the best grass court player in the world. It’s pretty straightforward,” former world No.1 Andy Roddick told the Tennis Channel.
While Rybakina’s weakest surface is clay, her big serve and ground strokes fit well on the All England Club’s quicker grass courts. She already has the most number of aces on the women’s tour (316) this year, with Sabalenka third (231), but Świątek has the most successful return games (50.7%).
“To play seven matches, you have to be at your 100%,” says ESPN commentator Chris Evert. “It’s tough to defend a title. She (Rybakina) has shown vulnerability this year. She has the perfect game for grass…but I don’t know if she is at that top (like last year). I see others like Sabalenka and Iga getting better. I would not put her on top of my list (of favourites).”
The 5ft,11-inch Sabalenka and 6ft Rybakina dish out power on court, the 5ft, 9-inch Świątek is more the tactician, with a solid defence aided by quick court coverage and a forehand speed that’s comparable to some of the male players.
“For now, yes, I would say just because of the results,” said Rybakina, in a measured response to their budding rivalry, before Roland Garros. “But yeah, and I think we kind of (are) pushing each other.”
Given that she is a three-time champion at Roland Garros, clay is seen as Świątek’s favoured surface. Her best result at Wimbledon is reaching the fourth round in 2021, a statistic that’s a blemish on her aspirations of domination.
She won eight singles titles last year, which included a numbing 37 straight match wins. It was the joint highest unbeaten streak on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour (WTA) since 1990. It prompted world No.6 Ons Jabeur to say on the Netflix series Break Point, “The image of Iga winning all the matches scared most of the players on tour.”
She predictably won the French Open this year. Świątek is playing one event on grass, at the ongoing Bad Homburg Open in Germany.
She has a 6-5 win-loss record on grass and admits to being uncomfortable on it. “The fact is she can’t feel super confident on grass,” says Evert. “She is No.1, but this surface may take away her strength, which is her moving, her sliding.”
With a 64-week stint on the top of rankings, she remains the player to beat, though the gap with the other two is narrowing. “It’s nice to have somebody constantly kind of watching you,” Świątek told reporters before the French Open. “We played so many matches against each other that tactically we know our games pretty well.
“But we also have to kind of come up with some different solutions sometimes.... I think this is what the Big Three (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic) had to do for sure when they played, like, 30 matches against each other or even more.”
After the high of a maiden Grand Slam in Australia, Sabalenka has been in three finals, losing once to Rybakina, once to Świątek, and beating Świątek in the third. She has won the most number of matches on tour this year (42). Last year, she went through her own set of problems, including a bizarre double fault record and Belarus’ compliance with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. She could not play at last year’s Wimbledon because the All England Club banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing.
Besides, her win rate on grass is 50%, compared to 82% on clay and 87% on hard court. Since 2017, she has progressed into the second week at Wimbledon just once, making the semi-final in 2021.
Even though her grass court season hasn’t started too well in 2023—she lost to Veronika Kudermetova, while Rybakina lost to Donna Vekić in the round of 16 at Berlin’s Bett1open last week—Sabalenka is a different player, high on confidence, brutal with her ground strokes. The Australian Open win was a testament to her enhanced calmness on court, balancing the explosive nature of her game.
The comparison—between the original Big Three and the new lot—is by all accounts premature, one that demands caution. Federer-Nadal-Djokovic have a combined 65 Grand Slam titles over the course of 20-odd years. Świątek-Sabalenka-Rybakina have six in four years, crowding the top three positions in rankings only recently.
Sport, though, relies on projections, the what-ifs, legacies and history. Tennis followers need a crutch when moving ahead from a once-in-a-lifetime period of concurrent all-time greats. The Big Three in 2023, as a label, is just that for now.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.