Tennis Briefing: Is a WTA ‘Big Four’ coming? What’s eating Andrey Rublev?

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Tennis Briefing: Is a WTA ‘Big Four’ coming? What’s eating Andrey Rublev?


Welcome to the Monday Tennis Briefing, where The Athletic will explain the story behind the stories from the last week on court.

This week, the European clay swing kicked off in earnest across the ATP and WTA tours, with tournaments in France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Romania. The four best women’s players faced off in Stuttgart, Barcelona witnessed the return of Rafael Nadal, and we saw a serve from zero gravity.

If you’d like more tennis coverage, please click here.


Are the WTA and ATP tours swapping their metas?

For the past year, there’s been some chatter about a ‘Big Four’ forming in women’s tennis. It was a ‘Big Three’, comprised of Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka, but then Coco Gauff won the U.S. Open and became a seriously consistent presence in the business end of tournaments, including the semi-finals of the Australian Open. She also climbed to No 3 in the rankings. At the same time, the rapid emergence of Carlos Alcaraz, succeeded by the slower burn of Jannik Sinner, Daniil Medvedev being Daniil Medvedev, and the elastic continuity of Novak Djokovic forged new rivalries on the ATP tour.

The last few months have thrown a wrench into that thinking. Despite being without a Grand Slam title since last year’s French Open, Swiatek continues to show every sign of being a dominant world No 1 for a good while. The other three haven’t delivered the kind of consistency that would really justify using a name that has its roots in the Roger Federer/Djokovic/Nadal/Andy Murray dominance of the 2010s.

A decade on, it is easy to forget how often those names landed in the last weekends of the biggest events. Consider 2012: of the 16 semi-final spots in that year’s four Grand Slam tournaments, Murray, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic accounted for 12 of them. Murray, Djokovic and Federer also took three of the semi-final spots at the London Olympics that year.

In Stuttgart last week, a rare mid-level tournament to attract the top four women, it looked like they might pull off a semi-final sweep. But then Marketa Vondrousova beat Sabalenka, and Gauff lost to Marta Kostyuk, with Elena Rybakina winning the tournament.

Next up, Madrid. Maybe the quartet will be the last four standing this time.

GO DEEPER

Tennis’ top women say the sport is broken. This is why


What’s behind Andrey Rublev’s eight-set slump?

Good tennis players can see their form nosedive. Right now, it’s Rublev’s turn.

Rublev was world No 5 at the start of the year. He played to his seeding at the Australian Open, but he has been in a bad way since he was defaulted in the final games of a semi-final match in Dubai against Alexander Bublik in February.

Rublev angrily protested a call to a line judge. Another line judge claimed the Russian had used profanity in his native language.

He didn’t.

The tournament officials refused to review tapes before they defaulted Rublev and he was stripped of his ranking points and prize money earned.

The video went viral, and the ATP eventually restored his rankings points and the money he had earned — but the damage had been done. Rublev has won just one match since then, and he has lost to players ranked far lower than he is, including world No 44 Alexei Popyrin and last week, world No 87 Brandon Nakashima, which saw Rublev destroy his racket after losing match point.

The encounters have not been very close either. Rublev has apparently been healthy, but he’s just not playing very well, having dropped eight sets out of 10 since the default in a string of four consecutive defeats.

These stats aren’t awesome, but they aren’t exactly on a decline as steep as his match results. However, take a look at something else…

‘Dominance ratio’ is calculated by dividing the percentage of return points won by the percentage of service points lost. The last time Rublev’s dominance ratio was this low was in 2015, when his ranking high for the year was No 185 in the world and his ranking low was No 438.


Coco Gauff does what Coco Gauff does… for how long?

Gauff gets a ton of accolades for her grit, her competitiveness, her ability to gut out tight matches, especially across three sets.

The American may have all those qualities, but she can also do math.

Gauff has played 25 matches, winning 19 and losing six. Of those 25 matches, eight have gone the distance, and of those eight, she has lost four.

That’s two losses in 17 two-set matches, and four losses in eight three-set matches.

What does all this mean?


Gauff came out on the wrong end of a topsy-turvy match (Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

Sure, her coach Brad Gilbert is the greatest espouser of winning ugly, but it has to include the “winning” part. Gauff pretty much always shows up, and it’s worth remembering that of those two straight-set defeats, one was against Sabalenka in the Australian Open semi-final.

She could still do with being a bit more clinical. As thrilling as it is to watch Gauff fight, as wild as it is to watch her win matches when she is far from her best, slim margins eventually catch up with players. That’s what happened in Stuttgart against Kostyuk, a player Gauff beat in three sets in Australia but who returned the favour in Germany.

It’s a microcosm of the coin flip that her three-setters have become.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Listening to women: The slow rise of female tennis coaches


Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud peak — but at the right time?

Tsitsipas and Ruud are two of the best clay court players in the world. Ruud has made the finals of the last two French Opens. Tsitsipas made the one before that. Unfortunately, their opponents in those finals, Nadal and Djokovic, have won a combined 46 Grand Slam titles, 17 of them at Roland Garros.

Still, Tsitispas and Ruud have earned the right to build their clay seasons to peak at the French Open, because both should be alive deep in the tournament and, depending on how the draw breaks, they might have a shot at winning it too.


Ruud took control of this final after a meek performance last week (Joan Valls/Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The way things are going, they might not have any fuel left in their tanks.

For a second consecutive week, Ruud and Tsitispas met in the finals of a tournament, this time in Barcelona, where Ruud avenged his loss to the Greek in Monte Carlo. It was Ruud’s third event of the clay-court season and Tsitispas’s second, with Madrid and Rome — both competitions just under the level of a Grand Slam — taking up the next four weeks of the calendar before Roland Garros starts. That’s a lot of tennis, even for players in their mid-twenties, such as Ruud and Tsitispas.

Yes, this is the time of year when clay-court standouts try to pile up rankings points and prize money, but is it too much? Djokovic certainly thinks so, at least for him. A master of conserving energy and peaking at the biggest events, Djokovic played Monte Carlo, losing to Ruud in the semis, but he took last week off and has pulled out of Madrid too. He will likely play Rome, then head to Paris — fuel reserves on high.


Kick it, real good

It is a truth universally acknowledged — at least by readers of beloved British children’s author Michael Rosen — that if you can’t go over it or under it, you’ve got to go through it.

Brazil’s raw but rising star Joao Fonseca does not acknowledge this truth.


Recommended reading:


🏆 The winners of the week

🎾 ATP: 

🏆 Casper Ruud def. Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-5, 6-3 to win the Banc Sabadell Open (500) in Barcelona. It is Ruud’s first ATP title above 250 level.
🏆 Jan-Lennard Struff def. Taylor Fritz 7-5, 6-3 to win the BMW Open (250) in Munich. It is Struff’s first ATP title.
🏆 Marton Fucsovics def. Mariano Navone 6-4, 7-5 to win the Tiriac Open (250) in Bucharest. It is Fucsovics’ second ATP title.

🎾 WTA:

🏆 Elena Rybakina def. Marta Kostyuk 6-3, 6-3 to win the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix (500) in Stuttgart, Germany. It is Rybakina’s third title of 2024.
🏆 Sloane Stephens def. Magda Linette 6-1, 2-6, 6-2 to win the Capfinances Rouen Metropole Open (250) in Rouen, France. It is Stephens’ first title since 2022.
🏆 Suzan Lamens def. Clara Tauson 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 to win the Oeiras Ladies Open (125) in Oeiras, Portugal. In a wild final, Tauson was 0-5 down in the second set before winning seven games in a row but Lamens then recovered from 4-1 down in the third by winning five straight games for the title.


📈📉 On the rise / Down the line

📈 Marta Kostyuk moves up six places from No 27 to No 21.
📈 Marton Fucsovics moves up 29 places from No 82 to No 53.
📈 Magda Linette moves up 12 places from No 60 to No 48.

📉 Carlos Alcaraz remains at No 3, but is dropping 1,000 points, wiping out his gap to Daniil Medvedev at No 4.
📉 Karolina Pliskova drops six places out of the top 50, from No 47 to No 53.
📉 Dan Evans drops 20 places from No 49 to No 69.


📅 Coming up

🎾 ATP: 

📍Madrid, Mutua Madrid Open (1000) April 24 — May 5 ft. Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz (..?) Rafael Nadal (..?).
📺 UK: Sky Sports; US: Tennis Channel 💻 Tennis TV
📍Savannah, Savannah Challenger (75) ft. JJ Wolf, Bernard Tomic

🎾 WTA:

📍Madrid, Mutua Madrid Open (1000) April 24 — May 5 ft. Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina, Coco Gauff.
📺 UK: Sky Sports; US: Tennis Channel 💻 Tennis TV

Tell us what you noticed this week in the comments as the tours continue.

(Top photos: Alex Grimm/Eric Alonso/Robert Prange/Getty Images)





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