Ahead of the Wimbledon 2022 women’s singles final, most of the focus on Elena Rybakina revolved more around her nationality and less around the quality player she is. The Moscow-born Rybakina had switched nationalities from Russia to Kazakhstan in 2018 to get more support for her budding tennis career, following in the footsteps of many Russian-born Kazakhstani players.
But it was only four years later at Wimbledon, where the tournament banned Russian and Belarusian players for the former’s invasion of Ukraine, did many begin to question Rybakina’s true loyalties. Wimbledon itself warned the Royal Family that the Duchess of Cambridge would be in an awkward position of handing the title to a person of Russian origin.
Along with talking about how she crafted her impressive semifinal win over 2019 champion Simona Halep, the 23-year-old had to fend off questions about her Russian roots. “I think I’m based on tour because I’m travelling every week. I practise in Slovakia between the tournaments. I had camps in Dubai. So I don’t live anywhere, to be honest,” Rybakina said when asked about her residence in Moscow.
It would have been fair to assume that all the off-court noise surrounding her nationality would unsettle the Kazakhstani youngster. But against the crowd favourite – ‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur – Rybakina tuned out all the noise to launch an incredible comeback and win her first Grand Slam title on Saturday. The player representing Kazakhstan allowed Jabeur to win only four more games after the first set on the way to a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory.
Third seed Jabeur went into the match as the favourite with the Tunisian’s arsenal of delicate drop shots and exquisite backhand slices expected to counter Rybakina’s raw power. The Kazakh led the women’s field in the highest average first-serve speed (109mph) and fired in a season-leading 249 aces leading up to the final.
The opening set indeed went along expected lines with Jabeur unleashing her slice to set up the first break of the match in the third game. The Tunisian’s game-plan seemed to be focused on negating Rybakina’s advantage with the serve by taking the pace off with her returns and inducing errors by stretching out the rallies.
Jabeur’s plan worked in getting Rybakina unsettled with the Kazakh making a meal of two easy winners at the net towards the end of the first set. Jabeur won 16 of 33 points on Rybakina’s serve and had only six unforced errors to Rybakina’s 17 as she closed out the first set 6-3.
As the pro-Jabeur crowd rallied behind the history-chasing Arab, Rybakina finally found her rhythm in the second set. The vicious forehands started landing in the corners consistently and the booming serves were beginning to prove too much for Jabeur.
Rybakina was also able to read Jabeur’s drop shots and slices better and put pressure on the Tunisian. The errors also went down. In sets two and three combined, Rybakina had 16 unforced errors compared to 17 in the first set itself.
“Maybe the first set I was too nervous. Of course, Ons, she played well. I needed time to adjust to her game. But then after [that], I thought that I’m going to fight till the end no matter what,” she said after her win.
“I just tried to focus on every point because it was very tough. It was super hot. I think because I was nervous physically, I thought I cannot [run] any more. But in the end I was just running to all these drop shots. I think it was first time really when I run so much to all these tricky shots.”
Jabeur started poorly in the second set, giving away some cheap points on her serve as Rybakina broke in the first game. Jabeur immediately responded by bringing up a breakpoint opportunity in the next game but Rybakina dug herself out of trouble with two big serves.
Jabeur would get another chance in the fourth game as she got three breakpoint opportunities but errors began creeping into the Tunisian’s game. The backhand slices were no longer finding their mark and the drop shots became predictable.
Even as Rybakina began serving with greater accuracy, Jabeur laboured with her service games. Her first serve percentage dropped from 75% in the first to 57% and 32% in the second and third set respectively. The Tunisian made life difficult for herself by not challenging incorrect faults called on her.
Coming into the semifinals, Jabeur had won a tournament-best 63% of points on her second serve. In the final however, Rybakina feasted on the Tunisian’s timid second serves. Jabeur won just 12 out of 28 points on her second serve in the second and third sets as Rybakina targeted her backhand.
The Kazakh broke again and levelled the match by winning the second set 6-2.
Reactions to Elena Rybakina’s Wimbledon triumph: What a comeback in a fantastic final
Rybakina started the third set as she did the second by breaking Jabeur as she raced to a 3-2 lead. There was still some gas left in Jabeur’s tank and backed by a vocal crowd, the Tunisian brought up three breakpoints with a brilliant lob over the net-bound Rybakina.
In a testament to how far she had improved throughout the match, Rybakina did not buckle under the pressure and served her way out of trouble. Jabeur provided no further resistance and Rybakina romped to her first Grand Slam title.
Rybakina’s stoic expressions and her lack of emoting on court has been the subject of memes. In a match which saw Jabeur crack under the first sign of opposition, Rybakina’s ability to stay composed and being tuned out of her surroundings proved key in her comeback win.
After Jabeur hit a backhand long to win Rybakina the title, there were no tears, or sinking to her knees or shrieking out in pure joy. Just a routine fist pump and a little smile. The youngest Wimbledon winner in a decade even had to be reminded that she could just make her way through the stands to soak in the win with her team in the players’ box.
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“When I was giving speech in the end I was thinking, ‘I’m going to cry right now,’ but somehow I hold it. Maybe later when I’m going to be alone in the room, I’m going to cry nonstop. I don’t know,” she said about her lack of display of emotions after her historic win.
Just a little later in the press conference though, Rybakina broke down when asked how her parents would be reacting to her win.
Even though many in the UK drummed up Rybakina’s Russian roots and many in Russia claimed her victory as their own, the 23-year-old’s win ultimately puts the Russian tennis system in a negative light. Rybakina’s victory is all of her own making and the grind she has been through over the past few years.
“Maybe I proved that not always you have to have great team from the young age because I didn’t till the age of 17, 18,” she said. “So I think this is the most important thing, that everybody, no matter their financial situation, no matter who they are, they can play and achieve many great results.”