Elena Rybakina handed very tough projected path to defending Rome title

Rybakina set for her fourth Rome campaign and to launch her title defense at Foro Italico.

by Dzevad Mesic
Elena Rybakina handed very tough projected path to defending Rome title
© Getty Images Sport - Justin Setterfield

Elena Rybakina has learned her projected path to defending her Rome title as the Kazakh could potentially face both Aryna Sabalenka and Iga Swiatek this year. 

Rybakina, who is seeded at No. 4 in Rome this year, has a first-round bye at the tournament. After a first-round bye, Rybakina should have a favorable opener as she plays against the winner of the match between Irina Begu and a qualifier.

In the third round, Rybakina is projected to meet a seeded player for the first time in the tournament - 27th-seeded Elise Mertens. Although Mertens is seeded, that would still be a favorable matchup for Rybakina, who destroyed the Belgian 6-1 6-0 in Brisbane this year to improve to 4-1 in their head-to-head. 

Then, it is expected to get significantly tougher for Rybakina, who will likely meet in the round-of-16 either reigning Miami Open champion Danielle Collins or 2022 WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia. 

In the quarterfinal, Rybakina's projected opponent is No. 5 seed and 2019 Rome semifinalist Maria Sakkari. Rybakina could also potentially meet two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka or No. 11 seed Jasmine Paolini in that stage of the tournament.

Elena Rybakina
Elena Rybakina © Getty Images Sport - Alex Pantling

Then, Rybakina could meet Sabalenka for a second consecutive tournament and battle the second-seeded Belarusian again for a place in the final of a WTA 1000 tournament. On Friday, Rybakina and Sabalenka met in the Madrid Open semifinal, with the Belarusian winning 1-6 7-5 7-6 (5). If Rybakina makes the Rome semifinal, she could also meet there potentially 2022 runner-up Ons Jabeur or last year's semifinalist Jelena Ostapenko.

If Rybakina returns to the Rome final, she could very easily meet world No. 1 Swiatek there. Last year, Rybakina and Swiatek met in the quarterfinal and the Kazakh won that match after the Pole was forced to retire early in the third set due to a thigh injury. Since No. 3 seed Coco Gauff is also in Swiatek's part of the draw, Rybakina facing the American in a potential final matchup is also an option.

Rybakina enters Rome high on confidence

Through the opening two clay tournaments of the season, Rybakina is 8-1 and has won one title. In late April, Rybakina kicked off her clay season in a very impressive way as she stunned Swiatek in the Stuttgart final for her third title of the year. 

In Madrid, Rybakina was also doing well and appeared to be heading toward a straight-set win over Sabalenka. But then from a set and a break up and with a chance to serve out for the match at 5-4 in the second set, Rybakina suffered a collapse and Sabalenka went on to complete a 1-6 7-5 7-6 (5) win.

Undoubtedly, it was a heartbreaking and devastating way to lose a WTA 1000 semifinal. However, Rybakina refused to be negative or pessimistic about the situation, instead her rating her clay season as "very good."

Elena Rybakina
Elena Rybakina © Getty Images Sport - Julian Finney

"Without a doubt, the start of the clay court season is very good. Despite the defeat today, I think I played really well. I did everything the right way. Only a couple of points ended up making the difference," Rybakina said after her Madrid semifinal loss.

"Now I am very happy with my level and with how I feel physically on the court. Now it will be important to take a few days off and then try to adjust to the conditions in Rome, because the ball is very different there. 

"Normally I suffer with allergies in Rome. Last year I was lucky because there was a lot of rain, we will see this year."

What Rybakina said after winning the 2023 Rome title?

Last year, Rybakina completed just four of her seven matches in Rome. Before Swiatek retired against Rybakina in the quarterfinal, Anna Kalinskaya did the same in the second round. Then in the Rome final, Rybakina was 6-1 1-0 up on Anhelina Kalinina when the Ukrainian retired due to a leg injury.

"Yeah, for sure, it's really strange two weeks for me. Like, I don't remember when I got retirement on the other tournament. Here it was like three. It's really strange. Also with the rain delays, I think my schedule is completely different than usually. I was going to sleep really late, waking up almost like in the afternoon. Yeah, it's strange," Rybakina said after her 2023 Rome win.

"But I'm happy that this tough two weeks also finished in a good way for me."

Elena Rybakina
Elena Rybakina © Getty Images Sport - Alex Pantling

Also, winning her first WTA 1000 clay tournament made Rybakina fully confident she could also play extremely well on the slowest tennis surface.

"Well, I think with my game, overall I can play good on all the surfaces. It's just maybe for clay I need to be ready more physically and maybe have a lot of, like, preparation also, which not always have time to do after like hard court season," Rybakina said at the time.

"Overall, yeah, I think I can play well on all the surfaces."

Elena Rybakina