Elena Rybakina’s game seems tailor-made for Wimbledon but Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka are among her main rivals in 2023. The grass-court major has also produced plenty of surprises in the women’s singles over recent years.
After a thrilling European clay swing and Roland-Garros, the tennis circuit has rolled on to the grass.
Elena Rybakina is the defending champion at Wimbledon, though Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka sit above her in the WTA rankings.
There have also been plenty of surprise deep runs from lesser-known players in the women’s singles over recent editions of the tournament, so there is everything to play for.
With Wimbledon 2023 finally here, let’s examine who can win this year’s Ladies’ Singles event.
How Can Rybakina Defend Her Crown?
Rybakina’s game seems tailor-made for Wimbledon and ultimately, the basis of her title defence at SW19 will be determined by how well she serves. One of only two players to serve over 300 aces in 2022, Rybakina has continued to be the WTA Tour’s dominant player in that regard this year.
Among players with more than five matches on the WTA Tour in 2023, Rybakina leads for aces per match at 8.3, while holding the best ace to double fault differential at 5.3.
Meanwhile, Rybakina is one of only three players to have hit over 750 winners on the WTA Tour this year, while maintaining a positive winner-unforced error differential per match (2.07), along with Caroline Garcia (2.3) and Sabalenka (2.03).
Now a known quantity, the reigning Ladies’ Singles champion has still had to show greater flexibility in response to the rest of the tour adapting to her strengths.
This season has been reflective of Rybakina dipping the proverbial toe in the water, but the 24-year-old is showing an increasing inclination to come to the net and finish points. At stages this year, Rybakina has been visibly tentative in her approach to the net, but is at least showing palpable awareness of it in decision-making.
It can provide specific tactical benefit on the quicker grass, dominating court position on the back of Rybakina’s particularly powerful ground strokes. In 2022, Rybakina averaged 9.7 net approaches for a success rate of 61.9% on the WTA Tour. This year has seen a marginal bump on that for a marginally higher net return (that pun’s not intentional, we assure you). So far on the WTA Tour in 2023, Rybakina has averaged 11 approaches to the net per match for a success rate of 63.0%.
Despite losing from a set up against eventual finalist Donna Vekic in Berlin, Rybakina had her highest success rate at the net in a match this year at 81.9%, going nine from 11.
Whether those tweaks will be enough to help her replicate the triumph of last year, we will find out by the end of the coming fortnight.
Is Grass the New Specialist Surface?
Particularly in the women’s game, tennis has changed dramatically in the past decade and a half. More predominantly than ever, matches are won and lost from the baseline.
It is part of what made Karolina Muchova’s run to the final at Roland-Garros so remarkable because from a standpoint of shot selection and overall style, her variety represented such a throwback.
In a world of baseliners and in the official absence of carpet on the WTA Tour since 2019, grass has arguably become the specialist surface, with the Wimbledon women’s singles tournament only serving to reinforce that sentiment.
From the beginning of the Open Era until the introduction of the WTA 1000 format in 2009, Wimbledon had the lowest number of the four Grand Slams with players ranked outside the WTA’s top 50 reaching the quarter-final stage, just 15. Roland-Garros had the most over that span of time with 21.
But since 2010, Wimbledon has the most of the four Grand Slams and is close to matching that total at Roland-Garros, with 19 occurrences in just a third of the previous sample timespan.
That figure at SW19 almost doubles those of the Grand Slams on hard court, with 13 at the Australian Open and 11 at the US Open since 2010.
This is now not to say Venus Williams is guaranteed to go deep into the second week this year. Yet there is a more pronounced compatibility to the surface than in previous eras, suiting tennis players who can get free points on serve or at the very least dictate points from their first service.
Who Can Challenge at Wimbledon 2023?
The two most prominent figures in challenging Rybakina’s title defence at Wimbledon are naturally Swiatek and Sabalenka, for different reasons.
Despite the plaudits for Muchova’s style and the narrative that the world number two Sabalenka figured it out at the Australian Open, her late collapse in the Roland-Garros semi-final bordered on the theatrical.
After not converting on match point, nine unforced errors, two double faults and two return games to love in just over four games at such a pressurised juncture would sting.
How does Sabalenka ultimately respond when she returns to the business end of a Grand Slam?
The 2021 semi-finalist has the game to match it with anyone on grass and is bidding to reach the Wimbledon final for a first time, but something Veronika Kudermetova’s win over her in Berlin recently highlighted, fire can fight fire and gaining the early upper hand is critical.
Since reaching the Eastbourne final in 2018, the 25-year-old Sabalenka is 2-8 at WTA events on grass after losing the first set, with her last win coming against Katie Boulter on the way to that semi-final at Wimbledon two years ago.
For French Open champion Swiatek meanwhile, much like her idol Rafael Nadal, adapting to grass has been a work in progress.
Swiatek is yet to come close to a Wimbledon title and among players in the WTA’s current top 20, only Jessica Pegula (eight) has won fewer matches on the surface in their career than the current world number one (nine).
The 22-year-old’s win at Bad Homburg over Tatjana Maria was tricky coming from a set down, but finished in her 15th 6-0 set for the year so far.
Reaffirming Swiatek’s historic levels of dominance, the last player before her to register consecutive calendar years with 15 or more 6-0 sets was Martina Hingis in 2000 and 2001.
Swiatek could become one of only three players in the last 25 years have won 62 of their opening 75 matches at Grand Slam events. If she wins in the first round it would put her in elite company – the only other two to achieve that statistic are Serena Williams and Venus Williams.
With a thrilling fortnight ahead, Petra Kvitova and Ons Jabeur can also be considered contenders for glory at the All England Club.
Data Slam: Rampant Rybakina
- Elena Rybakina holds a record of 10-1 at the tournament following her Wimbledon 2022 triumph. In the Open Era, only Billie Jean King won more matches from their first 11 at the event, claiming all 11.
- Among players with a minimum of 10 Ladies’ Singles matches at the Wimbledon Championships in the Open Era, Ann Jones holds the highest win percentage at 92.3%. In the event she records two wins at Wimbledon this year, Rybakina will equal that figure.
- Barring walkovers, if Iga Swiatek reaches the third round at Wimbledon this year, she will surpass Evonne Goolagong Cawley (82.8%) and move into the top 10 for win percentage at Grand Slam events in the Open Era.
- Players representing the United States have won the Ladies’ Singles at Wimbledon 29 times in the Open Era, while Germany is the next best with eight.
- Among active players at Wimbledon this year, Venus Williams holds the highest amount of wins with 90, holding a win-loss record of 90-18 (83.3%).
- Venus is one of only four players in the Open Era to appear in 100 or more Ladies Singles’ matches at the event, along with Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and her sister Serena.
- After receiving a wildcard at the age of 43, this will be Venus Williams’ 24th main draw appearance in the Ladies’ Singles at Wimbledon, surpassing Navratilova for the most in the Open Era. Both are currently on 23.
- Navratilova and Petra Kvitova are two of the five left-handed players in the Open Era to have won a Grand Slam title. Navratilova (nine) and Kvitova (two) are the only players with multiple titles in Wimbledon.