With a display of powerful tennis that left center court breathless, Elena Rybakina reached her first Grand Slam final with a dizzying 6-3, 6-3 victory over Simona Halep. But now the 23-year-old has given Wimbledon an impending headache.
When the All England Club decided to ban Russian and Belarusian players in April, part of its thinking was to avoid the embarrassment of the Duchess of Cambridge presenting a trophy to a player of Russian descent as the war in Ukraine was raging.
But on Saturday, Rybakina, who was born in Russia and still lives in Moscow despite moving to Kazakhstan four years ago, will have every chance to lift the famous Venus Rosewater Dish. Especially if his game remains as destructive as it was against Halep.
After Rybakina knocked her opponent off the court with her extraordinary serve – which hit 120mph – and venomous groundstrokes, she also displayed some shrewd footwork when asked afterwards if she felt Russian in his heart.
“What does it mean for you to feel?” she replied. “I mean, I play tennis, so for me, I’m enjoying my time here. I feel sorry for the players who couldn’t come here, but I just love playing here on the biggest stage, enjoying my time and trying to do my best,” she added. .
Rybakina insisted she was delighted to represent Kazakhstan but again became evasive when asked if she still lived in Moscow. “I think I’m tour-based because I travel every week. I train in Slovakia between tournaments. I had camps in Dubai. So I don’t live anywhere, to be honest.
These were tough questions for the likeable Rybakina to answer, and there was considerable sympathy for her in the face of them after the biggest victory of her career. But the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpishchev, was quick to acknowledge Rybakina’s deep running propaganda victory, promising his country would cheer him on. “The grass is perfect for Rybakina,” he said. “Serves cool, plays flat, clear shots. Lena can win Wimbledon. Everything is deserved. It’s great that everything turned out like this, we will support her,” he told a Russian website.
What made Rybakina’s win so impressive was that Halep had by far the best form in the tournament, having conceded just 28 in five matches, the least lost en route to a semi-final. of Wimbledon for a decade.
The Romanian had also won 12 consecutive matches at Wimbledon, including the 2019 title against Serena Williams. Yet she had no response to Rybakina’s power or poise.
Then Rybakina insisted that she was nervous. But if she was, she disguised it with a conjurer’s sleight of hand. She won the opener for love, smashing in three huge serves with light cushioning, then broke Halep to go up 2-0. Another easy hold followed, and the Kazakh was leading 3-0 in just eight minutes. The model was fixed. Soon she was set up in 37 minutes and sprinting to victory.
If Rybakina’s power wasn’t unsettling enough for Halep, she found her own game was beginning to crack, too. Three double faults at the start of the second set immediately put her on the back foot as she was immediately broken and then went 2-0 behind.
The crowd sensed that Halep might fall obediently. But without warning, Rybakina suddenly put on a horror show of a service game, repeatedly deflecting the ball off the pitch as she was broken in love as the score was brought down to 2-2.
But it was just a blip. Halep was broken again after two more double faults to trail 4-2. Shortly after, another double fault and a backhand error saw Rybakina win the match – and become Wimbledon’s youngest runner-up since Garbiñe Muguruza in 2015.
Little by little, she allows herself to dream of a Wimbledon final against Ons Jabeur, who will be the first African to play in a Grand Slam final. “I remember I first met Ons when we were playing a WTA 125K,” she recalled. “She was very kind to help me find the club because she had a car. I think it’s just amazing to think that we’re making history.
The prospect of obtaining the trophy from Kate Middleton also appeals to her. “It’s definitely an honor and I’m going to be very excited for this moment whether I win or lose,” she said.
“I think it’s just something to remember, and it’s going to be amazing. Ons is a very good tricky player and I think it will be a great game.
It was impossible not to be enchanted by Rybakina’s happiness and joy – as well as the quality of her tennis. However, behind the scenes and their immaculate smiles, the Wimbledon costumes are undoubtedly moving uncomfortably.
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