In women’s tennis, there has been a lack of major rivalry for a long time. The tour has long been dominated by Serena Williams, and no one has been able to challenge her for an extended period. The closest she had was her sister Venus, but their battles were regular and mostly a spectacle, as they both felt miserable at the thought of beating their sister. They had some great games, but not enough to create a catalog on which the sport could be based. If only Naomi Osaka had come closer to Serena’s peak than her decline.
Few players have stayed at the top as long as Williams, making it difficult to find a regular dance partner in crucial matches. But Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka could be that pair after facing each other in back-to-back slams. Sabalenka won the Aussie Open semifinal with a 7:6, 6:4 victory, continuing the classic showdown they produced at the US Open final last September.
Gauff and Sabalenka have what it takes to create buzz on the WTA Tour, something fans are constantly craving.
1. Styles Make Fights
A good tennis rivalry, like any other sport, needs a yin and yang. Federer-Nadal worked because their playing styles were so different, with Federer feeling like a classical piano piece against Nadal’s grindcore. Federer was elegant, Nadal powerful. While Nadal-Djokovic will likely be considered the best rivalry in the men’s game due to the sheer number of big games they played (59!), the allure is also the level they bring out in each other. Gauff and Sabalenka are different. Sabalenka is pure power with improved movements, a huge serve, and big groundstrokes that can end points at any time. While Gauff’s serve has come a long way, her greatest strength is still her ability and willingness to do everything and play great defense. There’s a push and pull.
2. A Slight Bit of Annoyance
It doesn’t have to be personal, though that doesn’t hurt. But watching Sabalenka in her last two encounters with Gauff, you can feel the stress and frustration she repeatedly gets from shots that would normally win against almost anyone else. Gauff often forces Sabalenka to hit two or three winners to win a point, leading Sabalenka to approach the lines and eventually make errors. Irritation only fuels rivalry.
These two feel like they will be doing this frequently in the coming years. Sabalenka has been close to the end in the last five Grand Slams, winning last year’s Australian Open, reaching the semifinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and being the finalist in New York at this year’s Melbourne final. Gauff has reached her second consecutive Grand Slam semifinal, and both are now in the top five. When Sabalenka and Gauff are at their best, their paths are likely to cross fairly often.