Who can challenge Iga Swiatek for world No 1? Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, Ons Jabeur, Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff and Elena Rybakina are all in the frame; former Olympic champion Monica Puig examines the field.
Iga Swiatek stands head and shoulders above the rest in the WTA rankings but the three-time Grand Slam champion now has a “target on her back” with Aryna Sabalenka ready to challenge the world No 1.
Swiatek pulled well ahead of the pack last year following Ashleigh Barty’s retirement, collecting her second and third Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros and the US Open.
Winning her first major on hard courts in New York was a big moment for Swiatek, whose best surface by some distance is clay.
She will be clear favourite to make it three titles in four years at the 2023 French Open.
Belarusian star Aryna Sabalenka has worked with biomechanics and performance coaches in order to make progress and it appears to have paid off as she has kicked off 2023 with a perfect 11-0 record and two titles: Adelaide and the Australian Open.
Former Olympic singles champion Monica Puig has been impressed by how far Sabalenka has come having suffered some heart-breaking Grand Slam semi-final results in recent years.
Former Puerto Rican star Puig, told Sky Sports: “Sabalenka gave a clear indication that she did her homework during the off-season.
“There was a question mark prior to the Australian Open: Who was going to be the person who stepped it up in the off-season?
“She worked tirelessly on her fitness and her tennis. She had that extra time to see what was lacking in her game and now Sabalenka was serving so much better, which is something that has been a crutch in her game.
“She talked a lot about her mental attitude and how she was working with a psychologist but then stopped working with that psychologist because at the end of the day the only person who could fix her is herself.
“Nobody knows your own problems more than yourself and that was a really good self-analysis, also a very mature answer and a very mature thing for her to do.
“A lot of people benefit from having a mental coach. Swiatek benefits from having a mental coach on her team, but maybe for Sabalenka, it just didn’t work.”
Sabalenka has risen to world No 2 having recovered from her serving woes in 2022, but she is still over 4 000 points behind Swiatek in the WTA rankings.
She kept her cool in defeating reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in Melbourne for her maiden Grand Slam title that cemented her place as one of the brightest stars in the game.
Puig, who upset the odds to win a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, believes the 24-year-old has the tools to eventually overtake Swiatek and become the best in the world.
“She hits the ball incredibly well and athletically for being a tall player, she moves well. She’s also very strong, but the only things that stands in her way is herself. Her mental ability to get past important moments,” Puig said.
“We’ve seen it in two semi-finals at the US Open. We’ve seen her get to those stages but she has never really been able to push past it and the Australian Open was a perfect indication that she is stepping in the right direction.
“She’s heading there, she’s in control of herself and to win that first Grand Slam title will get the pressure off her back because people have been talking about Sabalenka for a while.
“She’s been at the top for many years. She’s been very consistent, so it was just a matter of time. Winning that title in Adelaide was the perfect kick-start to her 2023 season and the Australian Open title just confirms that.”
Winning won’t be so easy for Iga in 2023
Sabalenka, Tunisian trailblazer Ons Jabeur, rising Americans Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff as well as Rybakina are expected to compete with Polish star Swiatek for the prestigious titles starting with the “Sunshine Double” of Indian Wells and Miami Open in March.
“I believe that the women’s field has a lot of players that show a lot of promise and potential. I feel that a lot of people were stunned by Iga last year and how much she was improving,” admitted Puig, who retired from professional tennis at the age of 28, citing her string of injuries and subsequent surgeries as the reason for her decision.
“I thought Iga was mentally very, very tough. Physically, she was a lot faster, a lot quicker in her reactions on the court, taking time away from a lot of players which in my opinion is why she won so many sets to love.
“She never gave players time to get into the match and not a lot of players knew what to do against Iga.
“This year, people are better prepared, they’ve studied her and will be a little bit better prepared going on to the court against
Puig continued: “Not just Sabalenka, but a lot of players will be looking to challenge Iga this year because what she did last year was historic.
“Nobody will ever be able to take it away from her but doing what she did last year puts an even bigger target on her back because she is the one that everyone wants to beat knowing the record that she had, getting through so many matches without even losing.
“In order to beat her you need to study, you need to get better, you need to communicate with your team. What things do I need to do to reach that point?”— skysports