Interview at Indian Wells: Elena Rybakina reaches the semifinals

Elena Rybakina, like her one-time countryman Daniil Medvedev, isn’t a fan of the courts in Indian Wells.

“The conditions are not easy for me, because the courts are really slow,” the 6-foot power player said earlier in the week. “[In my first-round match] it was very windy, the ball was flying much more.”

“But I’m trying to adapt and adapt my game; so far it’s successful,” she added with a smile.

Rybakina, also like Medvedev, has dealt with the conditions well enough to reach the semifinals at the BNP Paribas Open. What she hasn’t done is unleash any rants about how the surface is “awful,” a “disgrace,” and not deserving of being called a hard court at all, the way he did this week.

It’s hard to imagine Rybakina ranting about anything, really. We often say that a player has “quietly” made a run to the semifinals, or stayed “under the radar” at a tournament. Rybakina takes that idea to another level pretty much every week.


On Thursday, even as she squeaked through a 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-4 win over Karolina Muchova that was as topsy-turvy as the weather in the desert, the Russian-turned-Kazakh stayed as silent and stoic as ever. Her coach, Stefano Vukov, chattered away at her whenever she was within earshot, but she didn’t offer any response. When she finally closed Muchova out on her third match point, with a blistering ace down the T, Rybakina celebrated the way she always does: By raising her hand and clenching for half a second, as she walked straight to the net.

Watching her, you would have no idea this was a breakthrough win. Rybakina has shown that she can win big at the Grand Slams, but before today she had yet to reach the semifinals at the next level down, a WTA 1000. Now she has.

More important, Rybakina won a match where her level of play rose and dipped sharply. That streakiness has been par for the course for most of the 23-year-old’s young career. If she’s timing her long, heavy strokes, and hammering her serve, she’s tough for anyone to beat. If she’s not, and her opponent can make her move and defend, she’s vulnerable. Last summer Rybakina won Wimbledon, but then lost in straight sets in the first round at the US Open.


Rybakina is rounding into a late-round threat wherever she plays.

Rybakina is rounding into a late-round threat wherever she plays.

Against Muchova, though, Rybakina found a way to live with her streaks. Down a break in the first set, she broke back at 4-5, and won a flawless, winner-filled tiebreaker. After letting Muchova run away with the second set, she gathered herself right away, broke at 1-1 in the third, and held four more times for the win. She got tight on her first two match points, and when she served for it at 5-4, she went down 0-30. But something steeled inside her, and she won four straight points for the match.

“It was already a struggle from the beginning,” Rybakina said. “It was tough for me to get free points.

“In the third, I just knew that I have to push more, try to focus on every point, just somehow to raise my energy…I’m just happy I managed to win the match with an ace, for sure.”

For Tennis Channel commentator Tracy Austin, this type of win is the next step in Rybakina’s development.

“Those days when she has to grub a match out,” Austin says, “when she’s not feeling comfortable on the court, when she’s not at her best. That’s the next evolution in her game. I think she can find that gear.”


Rybakina will need to be in top gear in her next match, which will be against Iga Swiatek on Friday. Right now that may not be quite as daunting a task as it sounds: Rybakina beat Swiatek the last time they played, 6-4, 6-4, at the Australian Open.

She’s expecting a different scenario tomorrow, but she knows she has the weapons to counter the world No. 1.

“In Australia I know that when I went to play against her, I had really nothing to lose,” Rybakina says. “I knew the game plan, I knew how I have to play, and in the end, I did well.

“If I’m going to bring my best tomorrow, there’s chances I’m going to win.”