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Tiebreak of the Year? Match of the Year? Anna Blinkova Takes Out Elena Rybakina

Anna Blinkova in action ahead of the WTA Hong Kong Open.

The top four women’s singles seeds seemed basically untouchable as the Australian Open was about to begin, but of course it’s rarely like this in the best-of-three format. Thursday began with Iga Swiatek almost losing to Danielle Collins, falling behind 1-4 (double break) and then 2-4 0-40 in the decider before taking the win. Just as it seemed nothing else could top that, Elena Rybakina found herself in a lot of trouble against Anna Blinkova.

Unbelievable form in Brisbane, tough opener at the Australian Open

Seeded 3rd in Melbourne, Rybakina was seemingly coming into the event in pretty amazing form. She demolished everyone on the way to the Brisbane title, including a 6-0 6-3 routing of World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. Overall, she dropped just 15 games in 9 sets at that tournament. She then briefly appeared in Adelaide where she suffered a quarterfinal exit to Ekaterina Alexandrova, but that result was perceived as a potential blessing in disguise with the extra rest she got. The opening round of the Australian Open had her battle two-time Grand Slam runner-up Karolina Pliskova and while it wasn’t a perfect match, the quality of the rival made it okay for the start to be a little bit patchy.

Perhaps the dip in quality was already visible though and Rybakina soon found herself struggling against Blinkova in Round 2. The opponent has a reputation for being a fairly dangerous player with a 2-11 record against the Top 10 (before today), including a Grand Slam win over Caroline Garcia at the 2023 French Open. Rybakina is in another league of achieving consistent results though and it seemed like she was very likely to make the semifinals along with all the other top 4 seeds (Swiatek, Sabalenka, Coco Gauff).

Match of the year in January?

But that seemingly trivial round-two match ended up being unforgettable. Blinkova had the better start and even briefly went a set and a break up, but Rybakina got it back, loosened up and took it to a decider. Little did we know that it wasn’t the end of her issues yet and the Russian would once again open up a lead, this time even getting to 4-2 in the 3rd.

From that point onwards the match just featured so many twists and turns that it’s almost impossible to list them all. Anytime Rybakina would level and have all the momentum on her side, Blinkova would suddenly start playing her best stuff again. The Russian served for the match twice before the deciding tie-break and missed two match points. The 10-point tie-break seemed like a fair way of determining the outcome, but it turned out to be the best 10-pointer ever played at the Grand Slam stage.

“10-pointer” only refers to how many you theoretically need to win it because with the required margin of two, the tie-break could practically go on forever. This one kind of did with 42 points played in total over 32 minutes. It was eventually Blinkova who claimed it on her 8th opportunity (10th if you count the two match points from 5-6 before the tie-break), having saved six herself.

The most dramatic saves had the Russian win a long rally by capitalizing on a short ball with an inside-out forehand winner on the line, or the craziest of them all when she chased down a dropshot and Rybakina stretched to a volley enough to touch it, but not to put it over the net. Best tie-break of the year even though we’re in January? Almost for sure and maybe even the best match.

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What’s next for Rybakina?

Along with her third-round exit at the US Open (lost to Sorana Cirstea), that’s now the second Slam in a row Rybakina leaves much earlier than expected. She lost most of her runner-up points from last year and will drop down to World No. 5 in the WTA Rankings after the Australian Open with Gauff and Jessica Pegula set to overcome her. It remains to be seen whether she’s still every bit as close to the very top of the sport as she was last year (and as we thought after the dominant Brisbane run). It does seem like she’s showing a bit more chinks in her armor recently. Sometimes you could also criticize her for going away mentally, but clearly not today with the insane fighting effort it took to keep pushing Blinkova for so long.

Main Photo Credit: David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

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