With a display of tennis power that left the center court gasping, Elena Rybakina reached her first Grand Slam final with a stunning 6-3, 6-3 victory over Simona Halep. But the 23-year-old left Wimbledon with a looming headache.
When the All England Club decided to ban Russian and Belarusian players in April, part of its thinking was to avoid embarrassing the Duchess of Cambridge as she handed a trophy to the Russian-born player during the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
But Rybakina, who was born in Russia and still lives in Moscow despite switching to Kazakhstan four years ago, will have every chance on Saturday to raise the famous Venus Rosewater. Especially if her game remains as ruinous as it was against Halep.
Having knocked her opponent off the field with her extraordinary serve – touching 120 mph – and poisonous ground strokes, Rybakina also showed some great footwork when asked afterwards if she had a Russian feeling at heart.
“What does it mean to feel?” responded. “I mean, I play tennis, so for me, I’m enjoying my time here. I feel like the guys who couldn’t come here, but I enjoy playing here on the bigger stage, I’m enjoying my time and trying to do my best.”
Rybakina insisted she was pleased to represent Kazakhstan but evaded again when asked if she still lived in Moscow. “I guess I rely on tours because I travel every week. I play sports in Slovakia between tournaments. I had camps in Dubai. So I don’t live anywhere, to be honest.”
These were tough questions for the beloved Rybakina to answer, and there was great sympathy for her in facing her after the biggest win of her career. But the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarbishov, was quick to acknowledge the propaganda victory of Rybakina’s deep career as he promised that his country would cheer her up. “The grass is perfect for Rybakina,” he said. “He performs well and plays flat and clear shots. Lina can win Wimbledon. Everything is due. “It’s great that it all ended this way, and we will be attracted to her,” he told a Russian website.
What made Rybakina’s win so impressive was that Halep had the best performance of the tournament, conceding only 28 in her five matches, the least of which went down en route to the Wimbledon semi-finals a decade ago.
The Romanian has also won 12 consecutive matches at Wimbledon, including the 2019 title against Serena Williams. However, she had no answers for Rybakina’s strength or poise.
After that, Rybakina insisted that she was nervous. But if she is, she is disguised as a wizard’s sleight of hand. She won the opening game to love, landed a massive three serve with a superb shot, and then broke Halep to lead 2-0. Another easy pass followed, and the Kazakh led 3-0 in just eight minutes. The pattern is set. They were quickly set up in 37 minutes and rushed to victory.
If Rybakina’s strength wasn’t worrisome enough for Halep, she found that her own game was starting to creak as well. Three double faults at the start of the second set immediately put her on the back foot where she was immediately broken and then slipped 2-0.
The crowd felt that Halep might meekly decline. Without warning, however, Rybakina suddenly threw a horror display of a serve, repeatedly diverting the ball off the field as it was wrecked for love as the score was dragged to 2-2.
But it was just a passing picture. Halep was broken again after two more double faults to go down 4-2. Shortly thereafter, another double fault and a backhand error allowed Rybakina to decide the match – and he became the youngest player to reach a Wimbledon final since Garbine Muguruza in 2015.
She is slowly allowing herself to dream of a Wimbledon final against Anas Jabeur, who will be the first African to play in a Grand Slam final. “I remember meeting the Ons for the first time when we were playing WTA 125K,” she recalls. “She was so nice to help me find the club because she had a car. I think it’s amazing to think that we are making history.”
She’s also tempted by the prospect of getting the trophy from Kate Middleton. “It is certainly an honor and I will be very excited for this moment regardless of whether I win or lose,” she said.
“I think it’s just something to remember, and it’s going to be great. Onnes is a very good player and a trickster and I think it’s going to be a great match.”
It was impossible not to be intrigued by Rybakina’s happiness and joy – as well as the quality of her tennis. But behind the scenes, their pure smiles, there is no doubt that Wimbledon’s suits are swinging turbulently.
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