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Elena Rybakina: From nervous wreck to Wimbledon champion in under two hours
The 17th seed gave tennis another Cinderella Grand Slam story, while Ons Jabeur's history-making bid came just short.
Published Jul 09, 2022
HIGHLIGHTS: Elena Rybakina defeats Ons Jabeur in the Wimbledon final
“Unbelievable,” Elena Rybakina thought to herself as the Duchess of Cambridge handed her the Venus Rosewater Dish.
“Unbelievable,” she said, as she saw her name carved into the list of winners, alongside those of future Hall of Famers like Serena Williams, Ash Barty and Maria Sharapova.
“I can’t believe it,” were the first words Rybakina said during her post-match press conference, as she thought back on how she had handled the nerve-jangling experience of playing a Wimbledon final, in just her second appearance on Centre Court.
“Maybe one day, in a few days, I’ll sit down and I realize what I did,” Rybakina said after her 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win over world No. 2 Ons Jabeur. “But for now I’m super proud of myself.”
The women’s game has set a high standard for “unbelievable” first-time Grand Slam champions recently. In 2021, an unseeded doubles specialist, Barbora Strycova, won Roland Garros, and a teenage qualifier, Emma Raducanu, won the US Open in one of her first professional events.
Rybakina’s win isn’t quite as much of a jaw-dropping shock as those were. She was seeded 17th, she beat Serena on her way to the quarters at the French Open last year, and at 6 feet tall, with an excellent serve, she has a game for grass. When the pandemic brought the sport to a halt in the spring of 2020, she was the hottest player on the women’s tour.
Still, two weeks ago Rybakina was a relatively unknown quantity even among regular WTA followers; she was famous mostly for the way she didn’t celebrate her victories. She was someone to look for in the future, but not during this fortnight. In her two Wimbledon tune-up events, she won one match.
Now, in Centre Court’s centennial year, Rybakina has made her own contribution to the lore of that arena. It happened when she served at 3-2 in the final set, and went down 0-40. Jabeur had started the game with a perfectly measured drop-set winner, and an equally perfect lob winner. Here, it seemed, was the push we had been waiting for from the third seed.
In Jabeur’s first six matches, she had met every challenge she had faced, and elevated her game in response. She was too talented, and too close to becoming the first Arab woman to win a Grand Slam title, not to take her chance now.
Instead, the push came from Rybakina. She saved one break point with a strong forehand, another when a Jabeur drop landed an inch wide, and a third with a big down-the-line-backhand. When she held after a volley winner, Rybakina was up 4-2; she had passed the final title test.
“Maybe the first set I was too nervous,” Rybakina said. “Of course, Ons, she played well. I needed time to adjust to her game. But then after [that], I thought that I’m going to fight till the end no matter what.”
“Just tried to focus on every point because it was very tough. It was super hot. I think because I was nervous physically, I thought I cannot [run] any more. But in the end I was just running to all these drop shots. I think it was first time really when I run so much to all these tricky shots.”
“Elena stole my title, but it’s OK,” a disappointed Jabeur said during the trophy ceremony. The words were accompanied by a smile, but she must have felt like this one got away, that this was meant to be her day. Jabeur was the favorite, and the crowd favorite, and through the first set she was sharp, while Rybakina so tight she was struggling to move.
Even when Jabeur fell behind 0-2 in the second, it didn’t feel like a reason to panic. During the next game, she went out of her way to try a tweener, which landed in the net. At the time, I thought it was a sign that she was confident. Looking back, it seems more like foreshadowing. Time and again through the second and third sets, Jabeur chose the wrong shot from her famously varied arsenal.
When she had a good look at a passing shot early in the third, she chipped it instead of ripping it, and gave Rybakina a chance to respond. Another time, Jabeur had her choice of shots, but decided to throw up a delicate lob, which landed long. She squandered a break point by trying a pinpoint drop that landed just wide. Instead of playing the safe and solid shot, the way she did down the stretch in her semifinal win over Tatjana Maria, Jabeur chose to do something with a higher degree of difficulty. By the middle of the set, Tunisia’s “Minister of Happiness” was screaming at her player box in frustration.
“I didn’t play my best tennis, let’s say, second and third set,” a more philosophical Jabeur said later. “She started to be more aggressive. I think she stepped in the court and put a lot of pressure on me. That I didn’t find a solution for, unfortunately.”
“I was expecting to do better. It’s very frustrating because sometimes you have a lot of opportunities, but you give her a little bit of space, she does very well.”
Rybakina did very well, as a player and a new personality for tennis fans to get to know. She keeps her emotions in check on court, but we quickly discovered afterward that she has plenty of them, and has no problem talking about them, or making people laugh.
For a set, it looked like Wimbledon was going to get its first Arab singles champion. Instead, after banning Russian players, it ended up with a Russian-born representative of Kazakhstan holding the winner’s dish. In either case, the match was an example of tennis’s ever-widening global reach. Even the most famous tournament in the world can’t slow it down.
“Maybe I proved that [you don’t always] have to have a great team from a young age, because I didn’t till the age of 17, 18,” Rybakina said. “So I think this is the most important thing, that everybody, no matter their financial situation, no matter who they are, they can play and achieve many great results.”
Give her a few days and she might even start to believe it herself.