Elena Rybakina harnesses power to continue title challenge at French Open | French Open 2023

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Deep into the second set of Elena Rybakina’s French Open second round match against Linda Noskova, a routine day on-court nearly became complicated. Having faced minimal problems throughout, Rybakina threw in a series of unforced errors on her serve while leading a set and 3-3. She quickly found herself down double break point.

Few players in the world today are as adept as Rybakina at navigating tough service games and emerging with a hold. Under pressure for the first time, the Kazakhstani found a couple of searing backhands and a couple of big serves, saving three break points in total. Rybakina held serve and then she broke immediately. Shortly after, she reached the third round with a 6-3, 6-3 win.

This season, the Wimbledon champion’s all-surface rise has been one of the most notable developments. After winning at Indian Wells and reaching finals at the Australian Open and Miami, she closed off a fortnight on slow, damp clay courts in Rome as the unlikely winner of the Italian Open. Rybakina is the first women’s player since Serena Williams in 2015 to simultaneously hold titles at WTA 1000 level and above on hard, clay and grass courts.

Her success is driven by her first serve, one of the most devastating shots in the sport. Rybakina is the WTA’s ace leader, averaging 7.9 aces per match, and her 73.9% of first serve points won places her second on the tour this year. For Noskova, the pressure of holding on to her own serve was immense.

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Rybakina’s serve has long been a massive weapon but she continues to make small adjustments. This season, she made a small change to her service motion in search of a more consistent delivery: “It’s just trying to get more serves with the same motion, to get this power and just the timing, I would say. So it’s nonstop work,” she said, smiling.

There are ample players with immense power and weapons, but few are able to harness their power consistently. Rybakina’s success is as much down to the patience and control she has learned to play with, attacking big targets and punishing opponents with her weight of shot rather than directly aiming for lines. It also remains one of her biggest challenges.

She said: “Sometimes I feel like: ‘OK, the ball is quite easy, and I can go for it,’ but at these moments I need more patience. Not every ball, even if it looks like you can really attack and move in, because especially here, the conditions are a bit different. It’s not easy to finish the rally. You need to come forward. This is something we’re still improving.”

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Iga Swiatek returns the ball during her victory over Claire Liu
Iga Swiatek returns the ball during her victory over Claire Liu. Photograph: Robert Prange/Getty Images

This year marks the French Open’s second year of incorporating night sessions into its daily schedule, a result of its lucrative partnership with Amazon Prime. Unlike at other tournaments, the night sessions consist of only one match and they are reserved exclusively for men’s matches.

It is a complicated discussion; the disparity in treatment between the men’s and women’s is blatant, but the men’s best-of-five-sets format is better suited to one-match tickets in terms of length. In reality, one-match night sessions are a bad idea in general. Not only are they the worst value ticket in tennis, but few players like to compete in cold clay-court conditions late into the night. Since night matches are broadcast on Amazon Prime rather than France Télévisions, the free-to-air national broadcaster, the audience is considerably lower.

After her comfortable 6-4, 6-0 win over Claire Liu, Iga Swiatek noted that while she remains in favour of women receiving the same opportunities as men, she has been requesting day sessions. “My thoughts didn’t really change,” she said, “but honestly, I have to tell you that I kind of requested every day to play a day session because I felt like I played already night sessions in this clay court swing.”

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With Carlos Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas all occupying the top half of the men’s draw, Daniil Medvedev’s first-round defeat by Thiago Seyboth Wild has left the bottom half extremely open, with opportunities for those remaining. It became even more open as Jannik Sinner fell to Daniel Altmaier, the world No 79, 6-7 (0), 7-6 (7) 1-6, 7-6 (4) 7-5 after five hours and 26 minutes on Court Suzanne Lenglen, the longest and most dramatic match of the tournament.

First Sinner failed to serve out the match and missed two match points at 5-4 in the fourth set, then it took Altmaier five match points to close out the tense, exhausting battle. As Altmaier sat down and took in the achievement, the crowd chanting his name, he wept.

The top seed in the bottom half is the No 4, Casper Ruud, who defeated Giulio Zeppieri 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, while Holger Rune, seeded sixth, was the beneficiary of a walkover after Gaël Monfils’ withdrawal. In the bottom quarter, however, the 12th seed, Frances Tiafoe, and the 15th seed, Borna Coric, head the field.

The third round of the women’s singles will see a fascinating teenage battle between the 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva, who eased through with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Diane Parry, and Coco Gauff, a 6-2, 6-3 winner over Julia Grabher.

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