On watching Magdalena Rybarikova, and the fun of a wide-open draw

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From this point on, every match is crucial, because almost any player can win it all. (AP)

LONDON—Magdalena Rybarikova had barely stepped off Centre Court after her upset win over Karolina Pliskova on Thursday when a TV reporter asked her the question:

Can you win Wimbledon?

Rybarikova threw her head back and laughed. What else could she do? The idea, before that moment, would have been, well, laughable. The 28-year-old Slovakian had spent 2016 on the sidelines recovering from two separate surgeries, to her knee and wrist; as recently as March of this year, she was ranked No. 453. And while she has been winning matches and even tournaments in 2017, they’ve come in places with names like Gifu, Fukuoka, Surbiton and Ilkley. Places not named Wimbledon, in other words.

Still, traveling the world winning tennis matches, wherever they may be held, beats traveling the world trying to find a surgeon who can fix your latest seemingly unfixable injury problem.

“I started to play at the end of February,” Rybarikova told WTA Insider at the start of this week. “That was my first match, and then I had some tournaments in March. From there, I started winning so many—well, four—but so many tournaments!

“It’s great to have some matches, but I didn’t expect that I could play so well.”

Rybarikova has done more than play well in reaching the fourth round, and the second week, at Wimbledon. Her win over Pliskova in the late-afternoon shadows on Thursday was a revelation, and one that came with a strong sense of déja vu.

Lean and long-limbed, with a fluid serve, soft hands, a slice one-handed backhand to compliment her two-handed drive and a forehand that she can belt flat or curl with sidespin, Rybarikova looked like a throwback to Centre Court days of old, when women like Hana Mandlikova of Czechoslovakia and Natasha Chmyreva of the Soviet Union used their elegant all-court games to reach the later rounds here. On Thursday, the 5’11” Rybarikova and the 6’0, equally long-limbed Pliskova moved each other up and back and side to side through three graceful sets. The match peaked near the end of the third with the rally of the tournament so far.

“It’s amazing[ly] special,” Rybarikova said after her last backhand curled gently into an open court for a winner.

But just as you don’t break serve until you hold, an upset win isn’t worth much if you can’t back it up—and many players can’t. But on Court 18 on Saturday morning, Rybarikova showed none of the disorienting effects that sudden success can bring. Her finesse was just as effective in a breezy 6-2, 6-1 win over the hard-hitting Lesia Tsurenko.

Rybarikova took us back in time again. She hit underspin backhands that buzzed the net cord; rather than blast her high volleys, she dunked them lightly into the open court; and she was always a step ahead in cat-and-mouse exchanges. Rybarikova has an easy, forward-moving service motion that was made for serving and volleying, and in another era that’s how she would have played. As it was, on Saturday she came to the net 13 times and won all 13 points.

While Rybarikova has an unassuming personality on court—she apologized to the lineswoman that she hit with her serve—she couldn’t help but strut a little when it was over. After the last point, she stopped, put her hands on her hips and stared at her player box for a few seconds. She’s come a long way, she seemed to be saying, from Fukuoko and Ilkley.

How far can Rybarikova go? This is the beauty of having a draw that’s as open as the women’s is at the moment. When no one is the obvious favorite, you’re free to imagine virtually anyone holding the Rosewater Dish a week from Saturday.

Jelena Ostapenko winning two straight Slams? There would be a surreal appeal to it. Garbiñe Muguruza redeeming a largely lost 12 months with her second major title? It would be good, as they say, for the game. Venus Williams winning again for the first time in nine years, after one of the most difficult four weeks of her life? There would be poetry in that. CoCo Vandeweghe chatting with the Duchess of Cambridge? It would be worth it just to see the reaction on Twitter. Johanna Konta making it a Brit double with Andy Murray? That would certainly be popular around SW19.

The bottom line is that, from this point on, every match is crucial, because almost any player can win it all, especially in Rybarikova’s section. On Monday she’ll play a qualifier, Petra Martic, for a place in the quarterfinals. Even if she goes no further here, Rybarikova will be someone to look forward to seeing again, and her fortnight will have given us another moment for the Centre Court memory banks.

Hopefully, though, the thought of winning Wimbledon isn’t making her laugh quite as hard now. 

—GRAND SLAM WEEK: Watch Wimbledon Primetime on Tennis Channel, and catch up on the other 2017 Grand Slams on Tennis Channel Plus
—Watch encores from the 2017 French Open and Australian Open on Tennis Channel Plus, including matches like the AO Final showdown between Serena & Venus Williams

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