LONDON — Elena Rybakina was nervous. She was involved in her first match on Center Court at Wimbledon as the defending champion. She was up against a powerful opponent, Shelby Rogers. The roof was closed and she was recovering from the virus.
Even more daunting, Roger Federer, one of the greatest players to ever walk that court, was now sitting in the royal box just a few feet behind her, watching her struggle.
“Oh, maybe that’s why I was nervous,” said Ryvakina after recovering to beat Rodgers 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 on Tuesday.
Federer, now retired, was back at Wimbledon for a visit. As a player, he was part of the so-called big three of men’s tennis, along with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. As a spectator, he watched what some experts pointed out. Including Chris Evert. believe is part of women’s tennis’ emerging Big 3.
World No. 3 Rybakina forms the top of the women’s tennis pyramid alongside No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 2 Alina Sabalenka. Together they have won the last five major tournaments and the eventual winner of this year’s Wimbledon is also expected to come from their elite group, but of course it’s not certain.
For those who think it’s too early to claim the women’s tennis treble, Rybakina, 24, would agree.
“I think it’s too early to say anything about just three players because it’s not like Roger or Djokovic,” Ryvakina said. “It’s still too far.”
All three players are under the age of 26 and have the tools they need to win multiple tournaments and stay on top of the leaderboards. Players like fourth-ranked Jessica Pegula are excluded from the grouping. But Pegula agrees that even if one day she wants to increase that number to four, the top three are in the women’s competition class and deserve recognition.
“I think it’s exciting for us and for the fans to have something to get involved in and hopefully get excited to see them fight,” Pegula said Saturday. She beat Lauren Davis in the first round on Monday. “But I hope one day I can be part of that conversation. I think that’s all I have to say.”
Ons Jabur, who lost last year’s Wimbledon final to Ryvakina and the US Open final to Swiatek, is a solid grass-court player who could be on the line for a Wimbledon title this year. Jabur also believes that Siphiatek, Sabalenka and Rybakina set themselves apart.
“For me, it’s encouraging to see them doing well,” said Jabbar. “You can learn a lot from them.”
Coco Gauff, who is only 19 and ranked 7th, may one day break into the team. But that hasn’t been the case since Monday’s first-round loss to former world No. 4 Sophia Kenin, 24.
As Ryvakina said Tuesday, “Anyone can still beat anyone.”
When Wimbledon opened in the rain, the top three players had to answer at least one question on the court before lifting the trophy. The 22-year-old from Poland has struggled on grass, failing to make it past four rounds in three attempts here.
She performed well at the grass-court tournament Bad Homburg before Wimbledon, but fell ill after winning the quarterfinals and was forced to withdraw. She appeared to have fully recovered after winning her first-round match against Lin Zhu on Monday, but she will win three of her last four majors if she wins the title here. It will be.
Ryvakina won Wimbledon last year with amazing confidence and form, beating Jabour in three sets to win her first Grand Slam title. However, her condition remains questionable. She said the virus forced her to withdraw from last month’s French Open, after which her symptoms worsened. She’s fine now, but she needs to lighten up her training for Wimbledon, she said.
Sabalenka didn’t even play at Wimbledon last year. A native of Minsk, Belarus, she was banned from the tournament by all Russian and Belarusian players for her cooperation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Belarusian military invasion.
The affable Sabalenka said she would not answer political questions at a press conference Saturday before the tournament started, as she had already answered them several times. She (Rybakina was born in Moscow but plays for Kazakhstan).
Sabalenka said she barely got to see the tournament during her impromptu stay last year.
“I didn’t watch a lot of Wimbledon,” she said. “It made me feel so sick that I couldn’t watch it. If Wimbledon was on TV, I would definitely cry.”
So she’s only played eight games on grass in the past two years, and only two of them this year leading up to Wimbledon, where she’s 5-3. Perhaps more worrisome than the surface was her crushing defeat at the French Open last month. She conceded a come-from-behind victory for Karolina Muchova in the semi-final match, which was 5-2.
“I don’t like talking about confidence,” said Sabalenka, 25, who won her first major at this year’s Australian Open, when asked about her confidence level on grass this week.
She continued: “For me, it’s a little strange. I just want to say that I have a strong belief that I can do well on grass. I’ve already done it. It feels good on grass.”
She certainly played well in Tuesday’s first-round win. Federer was sent off after Andy Murray’s victory and missed seeing Sabalenka hit a spectacular between-the-leg shot from the baseline with her back to the net. Opponent Panna Udvardi (Hungary) was poised to take a point by hitting a volley shot near the net. Sabalenka smiled into the 6-3, 6-2 straight win and raised her fist to pay tribute to the artful Larry.
“I missed this place so much, that’s why I played my best tennis today,” she said on the court.