Elena Rybakina – Power Ranger, surprise champion, reluctant celebrity

Few expected the 23-year-old to destroy the field at Wimbledon. But she did right by giving notice of her ambitions on the big stage. How did she handle it and what’s next for her?

Few expected the 23-year-old to destroy the field at Wimbledon. But she did right by giving notice of her ambitions on the big stage. How did she handle it and what’s next for her?

On the surface, there is little about Elena Rybakina’s statistical past that suggests she should have the tournament she has at Wimbledon.

The 23-year-old has won just two of the 61 events she has entered, with a 2-6 win-loss record in finals. She has yet to claim a WTA 1000 title – a win that confirms the quality of the playing field at such events is a reasonable indicator of her ability to do well in a major.

Prior to Wimbledon, Rybakina was 17-11 in Grand Slam matches and 11-6 on grass – win-rates of 60-65% not to be disdained, but they’re not in the elite bracket. Moreover, she has struggled in the build-up to a major, winning just one out of three grass court matches.

So, it’s no surprise that bookmakers don’t think the odds of her going all the way are high. They had her as a 100-1 outsider before the tournament started.

At the time of her victory, she became the world no. 23 to become the second lowest ranked women’s champion. During this time, a woman ranked lower than Rybakina had won Wimbledon — Venus Williams was ranked 31st in 2007, but she was ranked no. 1 and has already won three of the five Wimbledon trophies in her career.

“I didn’t expect to be in the second week of the Grand Slam at Wimbledon,” Rybakina admitted, pointing out that those who had assessed her chances based on analytical measures of her record up to that point did not differ significantly from her expectations.

But if you dig a little deeper into her statistical past and subject her game to the ‘eye test’, there are signs that she can be dangerous, especially on fast courts.

Rybakina has a winning record (7-6) against players ranked No. 1. She also has wins over major winners including Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Sofia Kenin and Simona Halep — she added to the list and beat Bianca Andreescu. Halep again at Wimbledon.

Play dictating

Depending on Rybakina’s style of play, the match is often on her racket. She has ‘the big game’ with access to rangy, point-ending power through her serve and flat groundstrokes. One coach described Rybakina as “a right-handed Petra Kvitova” and the two players certainly have similarities in how they dictate the game – and blow hot and cold.

“The power I have is effortless,” Rybakina said. “I never compare myself to anyone. I knew I had this gift. I am tall and I play very fast. It’s not like I’m working out at the gym or anything. This is my weapon and I try to use it as much as possible.

At 1.84 meters (a little over six feet), Rybakina is one of the tallest players in the women’s game, and she’s taken advantage of that height: In the past three seasons, she’s led the tour in aces twice and finished fifth on another occasion. . She hit a tournament-leading 53 aces at Wimbledon and also unleashed the second-fastest serve of the edition: 122mph (nearly 200kmph).

So what has changed between being just another youngster with weapons that threaten the best and deploying them strategically for two weeks to become a Grand Slam champion?

“Over the last three years … I’ve been in a lot of good matches, great battles, against great champions and it’s always been close. In those close moments I’d lose serve or just miss. Maybe it just clicked mentally. [this time]. I believed in myself a lot in this tournament and I was strong enough to win in the crucial moments,” said Rybakina.

In addition to overcoming the psychological challenges of breaking through on the biggest stage, she also had to deal with questioning about her Russian roots during the tournament. Moscow-born Rybakina would have been excluded had she not switched allegiance from Russia in 2018 for better funding and support, as Russian and Belarusian players were banned from grasscourt majors following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A topic of discussion

Switching allegiances is not usually controversial, but Rybakina’s move to play for Kazakhstan was often discussed in her press conferences. “I’d say I’m lucky in this because the Kazakhstan federation, they’re watching at the same time [a] player to help,” said Rybakina, “and they believed in me, so I was lucky [that] This is how we found each other.

Rybakina was defended in her comments on the invasion. “I want the war to end as soon as possible. Peace, yes,” she said after her quarterfinal.

But with the Russian Tennis Federation quick to claim Rybakina as “our product” – its president Shamil Tarpishchev told the sports website Championship She was pressed on the issue after her victory – that it was a Russian school.

“I don’t know what’s going on. It’s always something in the news, but I can’t do anything about it,” she said, when asked if the Russian government was tempted to politicize her victory. “I have been playing for Kazakhstan for a long time. I get to represent them in the biggest tournaments, the Olympics, which is a dream come true.

Rybakina, whose parents live in Moscow, was reluctant throughout the tournament to explain how much time she was spending in Russia, saying instead that she was living on tour. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Rybakina, who was invited to condemn the invasion, pleaded for understanding. “I did not choose where I was born. Kazakhstan has supported me a lot. Even today I hear a lot of support. I saw the flags. So I don’t know how to answer these questions.

Rybakina’s win is the culmination of a long plan for tennis in Kazakhstan. The oil- and gas-rich Central Asian nation has a long tradition of homegrown success in sports such as boxing and cycling, but often relies on recruiting talented tennis players from Russia.

Rybakina made the switch at age 19 when her career stalled due to financial problems. The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation stepped in with an offer — representing the cash needed to support a tennis player’s global lifestyle. That decision four years ago now has the potential to change tennis in the country, as she is Kazakhstan’s first singles major winner and one step away from winning Olympic bronze in Tokyo after losing a playoff match.

What’s next for Rybak? Can she recapture her Wimbledon form in other majors or join the growing list of one-time Grand Slam champions on the women’s tour?

She said the coach of Croatia, Stefano Vukov BBC That she is likely to keep winning. “It’s a long process because she’s still raw in a lot of ways. We started working together in smaller events and here we won Wimbledon. This is just the beginning,” he said.

“I’m 100% sure she can win one,” added Vukov. “She is calm in big moments. I saw that she has this gift. Everyone feels nerves, but she is a very clutch player and she showed me from the first tournaments she played.

Rybakina believes she will head to New York next month more confident about the US Open, having failed to get past the third round in three attempts. “The goal this year was top 10 and that’s still the goal,” she said. “And to try to win another one [Major]. I haven’t thought about the US Open yet. A lot of good players and different players have won Grand Slams in the past so I don’t know how I feel. But definitely I think I’m getting there more confidently.

Rybakina’s success, however, has some less pleasant side effects: She now has a target on her back and draws more attention as a tennis celebrity, which she doesn’t mind.

“Everyone was trying to help me because it was the first time and there was a lot of attention,” she said. “It’s not easy for me, because I’m a quiet person. I don’t really like being in front of everyone. This part of the job is still very difficult for me, but I hope everyone will help me improve in this, like I did in tennis. Let’s see. I hope it will get better.”

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