Mailbag: Iga Świątek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina Are Tennis’s New Big Three

The three-way rivalry at the top of the women’s game is heating up, while Coco Gauff looks to garner momentum at the French Open.
Iga Swiatek shakes hands with Aryna Sabalenka after their 2023 match in Cancun.
Iga Swiatek shakes hands with Aryna Sabalenka after their 2023 match in Cancun. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, everyone …

To borrow from Baby Reindeer’s comedy act … who’s ready to do some tennising?

Here’s a Q&A we did with Zendaya, a new tennis convert (and, happily, proselytizer).

• Ever wonder about athletes—including Serena Williams—and their rituals? Harvard professor Michael Norton has you covered. Here’s a column. 

• On the most recent Served podcast we talk injuries, handling trolls, Danielle Collins and the magic of Denmark. You know, the usual. 

Onward …

Iga? Aryna? Elena? Who you got?

Rich, B-Town

• I need more context. Surface? What time of the year? Conditions?

But your larger point is a good one. For years the salon lamented the absence of rivalries and sliding doors in women’s tennis. Now we have a firecracker (sometimes literally) three-way rivalry, a trivalry that, reliably, captivates each week. Each principal is in her 20s. Each has won at least one major within the past two years—and been to the finals of another. Each has beaten the other in a close match … and lost to the other in a close match. Over the last few weeks: Elena Rybakina beat Iga Świątek in Stuttgart in a tight three-setter … barely a week later, she lost 7–6 in the third to Aryna Sabalenka in Madrid … who lost in the final 7–6 to Świątek in a class match-of-the-year clubhouse leader.

Sabalenka holds the head-to-head advantage over Rybakina (6–3).
Sabalenka holds the head-to-head advantage over Rybakina (6–3). / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Apart from the “wavering results” criteria, this rivalry features a contrast of styles and personalities. There are underlying geopolitics as well. Świątek, ferociously opposes the war in Ukraine, as most Poles do. Sabalenka, from authoritarian and bordering Belarus, is caught in a tough spot. Rybakina, born in Russia, is now playing for Kazakhstan and strenuously avoiding politics.

I confess to obsessing over rivalry, but this point doesn’t get made enough: As much as fans like the dynamic—rocket fuel for competition and all—athletes should, too. It elevates quality. There is all sorts of social science and data supporting this. Bodily chemistry changes when we compete against rivals versus run-of-the-mill opponents. Runners who identify a rival run faster than those who don’t. Rivals push rivals and make them explore boundaries and—on the day of competition—bring out, statistically, superior performances.

Women’s tennis has three players—capable of beating the other on any given day—who have won six of the last eight majors, occupy spots one, two and four in the rankings and are ages 22, 26 and 24 … fasten your harnesses. This ought to be fun.

Does Coco Gauff have a chance at the French Open? I really thought this would be a big year for her. But I am starting to worry!

Charlie D., Boston

• Does Fatboy Slim like Christopher Walken? Do Scandinavians like tattoos? Does the woman sitting next to me on this flight like to talk to everyone? Yes, yes and yes. Sure, Gauff has a chance in France.

She won a major barely six months ago. She was a Roland Garros finalist two years ago. She can play on clay. She will likely be a top-four seed.

Your larger concern is fair. The U.S. Open, one suspected, might be motivation to get her going. Since that triumph, she’s struggled a bit. She won her first event of 2024 in Auckland … and none since. She’s won a lot of close matches (good) but often against players ranked lower (less good). Her serve in particular has been temperamental. I’m not sure it qualifies as a slump per se. She is 19–6 on the year. But could she use a solid French Open? Absolutely. Can she deliver on that? Absolutely. Should last year be instructive on how fast fortunes can improve? Absolutely.

As long as we are talking Coco—as long as we are on the Coco channel, he says dad-jokingly—here is the great Sean Gregory.

Just an FYI, as you likely don't see this side of things normally … So you want to travel to Berlin for Laver Cup, Rafa’s last show, etc. You’re going some distance, which means getting tickets for multiple sessions to make the travel worthwhile. The weekend makes sense; arrive on Friday, leave Monday, see the two Saturday sessions and the Sunday session. 

The only tickets you can buy for that, now, are weekend packages. Seats are $500/session. Yes, that’s per session. $1500 clams in total. Single session tickets don’t go on sale until May 17th. The Uber Arena, where Laver Cup is being held, seats 17,000, or slightly less than the old Spectrum. Looking at the seating diagram it’s hard to believe they’re using all the seats, but maybe.

I know the profit margin on Laver Cup has been slim to none, and clearly television/streaming rights are where the real money is, but $500/seat for the cheapest seats you can buy right now for the weekend? Yikes.

Skip Schwarzman, Philly

• I feel like I’m at a cocktail party. “Supply, meet demand. Demand, meet supply. I believe you guys know each other already from the principles of capitalism. (Or maybe it was Camp Tawonga?) Anyway, you’re gonna love each other!”

Seriously, I feel your pain. Objectively, $500 seems like a lot to pay for a bad ticket to any sporting event. But the market is the market. If no fans were willing to pay that, the price point would be lower. I am more worried about, say, the events that need to sell tickets on Groupon. (Remember Groupon?) Or the WTA Finals, which papers the town and still has had trouble putting 1,000 fans in the seats in recent years.

Coincidental aside: I was just at Uber Arena. Tip: get a pass out between sessions, cross the street, and don’t miss the art on the stretch of the Berlin Wall alongside the Spree.

Have you ever gone back and looked at player’s boxes before 2000? John McEnroe had only his parents. Much of the time Ivan Lendl had nobody. Think it would make an interesting column.


• When I did my 1984 book, I was rereading an old piece on Martina Navratilova and she was mocked for her entourage. She had a dietician! She traveled with a personal trainer. Can you believe the excess? Turns out she was merely ahead of her time. (As she was on so many topics.) Three top-line thoughts:

1) Some of this might simply be real estate. If the Louis Armstrong Stadium boxes were bigger, I suspect McEnroe—who lived nearby (Connecticut-based Lendl too for that matter)—would have filled them just fine. At Arthur Ashe Stadium, now, the players are given boxes the size of a Manhattan apartment.

Carlos Alcaraz hugged his family and friends in his player's box after his 2022 U.S. Open win.
Carlos Alcaraz hugged his family and friends in his player's box after his 2022 U.S. Open win. / Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

2) These entourages reflect growth and progress. Players—top players in particular—can afford to keep a staff and travel in teams. This should be celebrated!

3) Especially as the sport becomes ever more global (and the season is Billy Gibbons-beard long) it’s easy for players to lack a sense of place. For reasons of mental health, traveling in packs is advisable.

While watching the clay court tournaments in Europe, you will notice quite a few stadiums/courts are named after famous players (Nadal, Sanchez etc). I think it is about time the US Open follows the lead of European tournaments and starts naming a few more courts to honor the great American players at the US Open.

I understand the reason Armstrong Stadium was named after the great jazz artist but this is a tennis stadium not a concert hall. Why not rename the stadium after Serena Williams or both of the Williams sisters? It would be nice if the Grandstand was renamed the Pete Sampras stadium who is the greatest American male player of all time. Court 17 is the next largest court, why not honor Chris Evert?

Your thoughts on renaming stadiums/courts at the Billie Jean Tennis Center. If you are renaming some of them, who would you honor?

Bob Diepold, Charlotte NC

• The USTA offered a “Court of Champions” tribute a few years back. But I am totally with you. Why not name all courts after esteemed players? And while it is, I suppose, a generous nod to the neighborhood (and tradition), should Louis Armstrong’s name be adorning a tennis court any more than, say, Chris Evert should be adorning a Boca Raton jazz club?

This isn’t limited to the U.S. Open. All tournaments can do this. Weirdly enough, I was at an academy in Spain recently and happened across Fernando Vicente Court. If a court at an academy can be christened in a player’s honor, surely Court 17 at the U.S. Open can.

So often I come into a match midway, and miss the pre-match commentator chat. Then I sometimes spend the rest of the match wondering whose voices I’m hearing (assuming I don’t recognize, say, McEnroe, or hear someone say “Chrissie” or “Pam”). Is there a way to find out who’s on deck for any televised (streaming) match? Thanks.

Deborah Joseph 

• Love this idea. We’re here for the players, not the broadcast. So it need not be on the screen throughout the match. But every few minutes, post a graphic letting the fans know who is on the call. (Tennis Channel is quite good at this, he says, full conflicts disclosed.) The other day, there was traffic on social media during a Madrid match. I love this announcer—who is it? Finally, someone furnished the name. (My pal and former colleague Candy Reid who once played for Tennessee.) It shouldn’t have been that hard.

Moyá won the 1998 French Open and reached the world No. 1 ranking in 1999.
Moyá won the 1998 French Open and reached the world No. 1 ranking in 1999. / Boue/Fep/Panoramic/USA TODAY Sports

Moya’s stats are comparable to Roddick; 1 slam, reached #1, won multiple masters 1000 tourneys, yet something tells me you wouldn’t question his HOF status. It’s ok to admit your bias; you might get more respect for it.


1) Hall of Fame talk has spiked in tennis. In my feed, anyway. And that’s cool. It’s normal for sports fans—at least in the U.S.—to have these discussions. It’s often a pretext for Really now, how good is/was this player? Which is all normal.

2) The downside: it’s too easy to use it as a way of tearing down players, great ones; or poking holes in resumes. (It’s a little like No way could X be the GOAT. She only won Y titles!)

3) Re: the above, my point was fully complimentary of Carlos Moyá. He was an excellent player, who won a major and was briefly No.1. Add in his coaching and that is a HoF resume.

4) Objective facts matter … Not just here but in, you know, civilization. Roddick won 32 titles to Moyá’s 20. Roddick made five major finals; Moyá two. Roddick won more matches and made more in prize money. Roddick even won four of their five head-to-heads.

5) The periodic plea for civility. We can argue. We can arrive at different conclusions. But how does an argument for Moyá lead to allegations of “bias” and a deficiency of respect?


Thanks for your continued salient insights on all things tennis. When it comes to the Served podcast, I respectfully cast my vote for bleeping out profanity. There are times when I want to share the podcast with friends, but not everyone appreciates coarse language. 

David McCreary

• Thanks. As for the cursing, it all depends on whether that Andy effing Roddick gets his head of out his patootie, dagnabbit.


Jon Wertheim


Sports Illustrated executive editor and senior writer L. Jon Wertheim is one of the most accomplished sports journalists in America.