Elena Rybakina made history on Wednesday when she became the first Kazakh player to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. It's a result that the Moscow-born No. 17 seed hopes will, in some small way, repay the nation’s tennis federation for their years of support.

“They believed in me,” she said after a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Ajla Tomljanovic. “They made everything possible for me to keep playing, keep improving. I had all the conditions to practice and everything. Of course, it helped a lot.”

It was only five years ago that a young Rybakina, then representing Russia during a Top 3 junior career, found herself at a crossroads on how best to proceed: should she pursue an uncertain pro career or instead opt to continue her studies and play tennis in college?

My dad wanted me to go to college because he was worried,” she told WTA Insider back in 2020. “He saw the results, but it was difficult for us financially. It's not easy. Like every parent, he was worried if I get injured.

“I had offers to universities in America, but I didn't even think about it because I wanted to keep playing. I had like 15 offers. My dad really wanted me to go. He thought if I didn't go to university, at home I would not get the same education. Because of tennis, I could get a better education.”

They believed in me. They made everything possible for me to keep playing, keep improving. I had all the conditions to practice and everything. Of course, it helped a lot. Elena Rybakina on the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation


It was then that the Kazakh Federation stepped in, as they’ve done in the past for players like Yulia Putintseva, Alexander Bublik, and Yaroslava Shvedova, and offered a package that has included stipends and access to elite training facilities.

“It was very good timing because they were looking for the player,” the soft-spoken Rybakina recalled of her 2018 switch from Russia to Kazakhstan. “I was looking for some help. They believed in me. So, I think it was very good combination. We just find each other.”

Combining a big game with a placid demeanor, she almost immediately found success on the pro tour, culminating with a blistering start to 2020 that saw her win 21 of 25 matches and reach four finals, winning one. The ensuing pandemic slowed her progress but she was back towards her best at last year’s Roland Garros, where she stunned Serena Williams in two close sets to reach her first quarterfinal—bowing out to eventual finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. In her Olympic debut, she upset Garbiñe Muguruza and finished just off the podium in fourth place.

Though she couldn’t have predicted it at the time, the move also allowed Rybakina, now 23, to sidestep Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players, so imposed because of their government’s invasion of Ukraine.

While Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, who defeated Rybakina at last year’s Championships, is unable to compete, Rybakina has enjoyed a career-best run at a major tournament, rallying from a set down to defeat Tomljanovic—who herself switched nationalities, from Croatia to Australia—and reach her first semifinal.

“This is not something you want to hear because we are playing sport,” she said of the ban. “Everybody wants to compete. They were not choosing where they born.

“Of course, I feel it for them because everybody wants to compete at the biggest tournament, at Wimbledon. Yeah, just hope that next year is going to be back to normal.”

In the meantime, Rybakina will press on to face 2019 champion Simona Halep with a maiden major title in sight. The Romanian has won their last two meetings in three close sets, most recently at the US Open last summer.

“She's a great champion,” she said of the former world No. 1. “She's moving really well, reading the game. I just try to do my best, focus on things which I can control: my serve, my shots, emotions.”

Two more victories and Rybakina—and Kazakhstan—will at last be at the pinnacle of the sport.

“I was born in Russia, but of course I am representing Kazakhstan,” she mused when asked whether she feels more Russian or Kazakhstani. “It's already a long journey for me. I was playing Olympics, Fed Cup before. I got so much help and support. I'm feeling just the support of the people and very happy to represent Kazakhstan because I think I'm also bringing some results, which are very good for the sport in Kazakhstan.”