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Women’s tennis has not had major competition for some time. Serena Williams dominated the tour for a long time and no one could look her in the eye for a long time. Her closest sister was Venus, yet matches between the two were regularly and often hard on the eyes, as they both looked absolutely miserable at the thought of beating their sister. They had a couple of great games, but it wasn’t enough to create a catalog the sport could rely on. If only Naomi Osaka had approached Serena’s peak instead of her finish.
Few players have stayed at the top of the game long enough since Williams to find a regular dance partner in important matches. But Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka could be that duo, having met at the end of the second match in a row. This time, Sabalenka won the Australian Open semi-final 7-6 6-4, but it was not easy in straight sets, if not the classic US Open final that brought them together last September.
Gauff and Sabalenka have everything needed to create something on the WTA Tour that fans continually crave.
1. Patterns make battles
Good competition in tennis, like any other sport, requires yin and yang. Federer-Nadal worked because their playing style was so different, with Federer feeling like a classical piano piece set to Nadal’s tunes. Federer was elegant, Nadal was powerful. While Nadal and Djokovic will probably go down as the best rivals in the game (on the men’s side) simply because of the sheer number of big matches they have played (59!), the appeal lies in the level they bring to each other as well, because they do the same. Kinda thing. It can be worn by any fan watching each other hit each other for four or five hours.
Jouf and Sabalenka are different from each other. Sabalenka has absolute power with improved movement, a huge serve, and big groundstrokes that can end a point at any moment if given position and time. Although Gauff’s serve has come a long way and she has finished with more points early, her biggest strength is still her ability and will to chase everything down and play great defense. There is pushing and pulling.
2. Minor level of discomfort
It doesn’t have to be personal, although that doesn’t hurt. But watching Sabalenka in her last two meetings with Gauff, you can definitely feel the tension and frustration that shots that would normally be successful against everyone else keep coming back to her. Goff forces Sabalenka to hit two or three winners to win by one point on many occasions. This forces Sabalenka to draw a red line more, get closer to the lines, and eventually make mistakes. The mere fact that Sabalenka went 11-for-20 at the net on Thursday was a sign of the pressure Gauff is putting on her, which increases with every shot. Irritation only helps in competition.
These two feel like they will be doing this a lot in the coming years. Sabalenka had approached the end of the last five major tournaments, winning the Australian Open last year, reaching the semi-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and reaching the final in New York to qualify for this year’s final in Melbourne. Gauff has reached her second consecutive Grand Slam semifinal and both are now ranked in the top five. World No. 1 Iga Swiatek still has more majors than both combined, but she can also come off the court at times due to sheer power. Elena Rybankina has the same strength as Sabalenka, but she explodes more often. If both Sabalenka and Gauff are playing near their tops, their paths will likely collide with each other more often.