A Surprising Wimbledon Finalist…Right?

By Juan Ignacio Astaburuaga

Elena Rybakina is one of the most fascinating players on tour for me, for both her personality (which many see as boring because of a “lack of charisma”, which I honestly could not disagree with more), and her game style, based on a really powerful serve — she’s the woman with the most aces this year — and effortlessly flat, hard-hitting effortless shots on both forehand and backhand.

The match she played yesterday against Simona Halep in the Wimbledon semifinals is probably the peak demonstration of her capabilities. It was one of those times in which every positive idea and expectation you might have about her game came into reality. She played a flawless match, and it was so satisfying to see. She didn’t show her own satisfaction effusively, and didn’t talk about it much even in the press conference afterwards, but she knows everything went as perfectly as it could, right down to that last return of serve.

With that, she’s now a Grand Slam finalist, and the first player from Kazakhstan to do so (I won’t comment on her nationality situation. Rybakina has made it really clear how she feels about it ― it’s almost like a witch hunt from parts of the media at this point). For some people, this is a surprising result. And there kind of is evidence to support that: she never cracked inside the top 10 (the COVID ranking system had a word on that, though), and she is currently outside the Top 20. She had only one Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance before this week (Roland-Garros last year) and is yet to even reach a WTA 1000 semifinal. Rybakina has only 2 WTA titles, both from more than two years ago, and her best tour result came at the Tokyo Olympics, a tournament played in extremely particular conditions, and that honestly did not receive the attention of a normal big tennis event. There she ended up in the heartbreaking medal-less 4th place. If you add that during the 2022 season, after reaching the Adelaide final in the first week of the year, she won three matches in a row and made it to the quarterfinals just once, in Indian Wells, then yes, this is a surprising result. The casual tennis follower did certainly not have her in the radar.

But for me, this is not a shock, it’s a confirmation. Rybakina had showed plenty of promise pre-pandemic. Until mid-2019, before turning 20, she was still mixing up ITF tournaments with tour events. At 18, she had already gotten her first top 10 win, but it took her some time to settle in the WTA. The second half of 2019 was when it all really started for her: first Grand Slam appearances, first semifinal, first two finals, and first title, on the clay of Bucharest. She then even went on to reach the quarterfinals at the Wuhan WTA 1000.

At the start of 2020, she unleashed all her powers. Check out this run of results: Shenzhen (lost in the final), Hobart (won the title), Australian Open (got the worst possible draw having to face world number one Ashleigh Barty in the 3rd round), St. Petersburg (lost in the final), Dubai (another final lost) and Doha, where she retired before her 3rd round match. She had reached her physical limit. She was 21-4 just in the first 2 months of the season! It was ridiculously good. But it still did not get much attention as none of those great results came at big tournaments, even though the Dubai final against Halep is almost like a classic match at this point, and it was even chosen as the best of the season by the WTA.

And then COVID happened… Talk about losing all your momentum at once. Rybakina reached the final in Strasbourg after the tour resumed, which she lost, again (Rybakina is yet to master extreme pressure situations, which is probably her biggest flaw as a player), but it was never the same. She did get her best major result with a quarterfinal in Roland Garros last year, but recall how it took her just two months in 2020 to win 21 matches? Well, it took her until June of 2021 to get to that number of wins after the pandemic break.

As I read from someone on Twitter yesterday, with Rybakina, since that 2020 run, it has always been more about “when” (when was she going to be able to put all the parts of her game and mentality together to show that captivating and elite level again, because I was convinced that day was going to come eventually) than about an “if” (“what if she could play like that again”).

She was also very unlucky in another way: that big occasion came for her at the Olympics, but she didn’t get any points from it (notice the irony that it is that this Wimbledon will also not give her any points), and the way in which she mentally fell apart completely in her last two matches basically sent her into a tailspin for the second part of the year.

Maybe I was romanticizing those days from 2020 too much and overrating that level and her game, but I’ve been genuinely waiting, at least for the entirety of last year, for this moment to come (although not necessarily at a Grand Slam ― I admit I did not see this coming now). But in this famous game for tennis fans of predicting the brackets from tournaments, I always found myself projecting her to go deep in every possible tournament, because I really believed that one day it was going to happen. Actually, that it had to happen. It clearly did not: she made just one quarterfinal in the last six months.

For this Wimbledon I thought about it a bit more. Andreescu in the second round seemed to me like the typical match which I expected Rybakina to play well in but eventually lose in the end. The grass was not a factor, though. She probably has one of the most homogenous styles across every surface. So, when she won that match against Bianca, and especially in the way she did it, it was a big sign for me. Do I get excited for the possibility of finally having that breakthrough, or is this going to be another big, missed chance, just like in Miami, Madrid, Rome, or Roland-Garros?

You know the rest of the story. The most admirable thing of her run at Wimbledon is how the big moments and tight circumstances never brought her down, as they had in the past. Rybakina has been absolutely ruthless in all departments. And her semifinal match, which she led since the very first point, was a complete validation of her potential. I don’t know if she’s winning the final tomorrow, as Ons Jabeur is logically the favorite here, and the match-up in game styles favors more the Tunisian. To crown this impeccable run with a title would be the most deserving reward in my opinion, but even if it’s not the case, the conclusions nothing but positive.

Watch out for Elena Rybakina for the rest of the year.

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