The Break: Who are the carota boys?

During her second-round match on Thursday morning, Elena Rybakina started to run for a drop shot, briefly gave up because she didn’t think she could get there, changed her mind as the ball hung in the air an extra second, then bolted forward and returned it for a winner.

It seemed like the perfect microcosm moment for Rybakina’s clay-court game right now. The Rome champion is doing more on dirt than many of us thought she would this year.

Rybakina is a classic fast-courter. She wins with power serves and power returns. She hits flat ground strokes and likes to end rallies as quickly as she can. She doesn’t have the heavy topspin forehand that her biggest rivals, Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka, use to win on the surface. Six feet tall and rail thin, Rybakina is also not a naturally great mover, and her opponent on Thursday, Linda Noskova, smartly tried to take advantage of that by using drop shots and hitting behind her.

The tactic worked for a set, but, gradually, Rybakina began to look for the dropper, and to track it down. In the second set, she returned one with a deft short-angle crosscourt that would have made Carlos Alcaraz proud. Later in that set, Rybakina also showed off some touch at net, with a drop-volley winner. Clay-court tennis requires power and consistency from the baseline, but it also rewards finesse. That will never be Rybakina’s strong suit, but she has a little more of it than meets the eye.


My first WTA win was on clay, so from that point I thought I actually can play on clay. Elena Rybakina

Against Noskova, Rybakina showed just enough of everything to walk away with a 6-3, 6-3 win that wasn’t quite as routine as it sounds. There were a lot of long, multi-deuce games. Rybakina went through a couple lulls where her shots began to spray. But she saved all four break points she faced, and hit 30 winners to Noskova’s 16. And she did it while making just a little more than half of her first serves.

“From my side I wasn’t happy so much with the percentage of the serve,” Rybakina said. “A lot of mistakes. I would say I was rushing again. Yeah, overall, it’s just good that I managed to win.”

Rybakina says she’s been working on her serve, to “change some small details,” and hit different types of serves with the same motion. For clay, she’s also trying to be more patient, but that’s a work in progress for someone who doesn’t like to dawdle. This is a woman who doesn’t even waste any time celebrating a victory before she gets to the handshake.

“Since I have big shots, I always kind of think that, OK, I can step in, move in on almost every ball,” she says. “Probably just want things to be quick, but this is not the way, unfortunately, in tennis. It requires a lot of patience. So, yeah, on this I still kind of working.”


Rybakina wants things to be so quick, she admitted today, that she has trouble listening to everything her coach tells her in practice.

“Before I actually started working with my coach, I thought that I have a lot of patience,” she said. “Apparently [in] practices I'm still rushing, and I want to do stuff. Like maybe not ready to listen, like the explanation, until the end.”

While Rybakina doesn’t have a classic clay game, she has had sporadic success imposing her own style on the surface. Her first pro title came on clay in Bucharest in 2019; she made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in 2021; and she’s coming off a title run at the WTA 1000 in Rome, though it involved three walkovers in six matches, including one from Swiatek in the quarterfinals.

Still, Rybakina was a set-all and 2-all in the third with the two-time Roland Garros champion.

“My first WTA win was on clay, so from that point I thought I actually can play on clay,” she says. “I think it depends where, the conditions, how is the weather, balls. Even here it’s quite different from Rome, the tournament I just won. I think it’s just for me different and longer preparations physically just because you need to slide a lot.”


Could Rybakina—who holds significant titles at tournaments on all three surfaces—actually be flying under the radar in Paris?

Could Rybakina—who holds significant titles at tournaments on all three surfaces—actually be flying under the radar in Paris?

Rybakina’s biggest strength on this surface may be her mental approach. As her quote above shows, she gets on with the business at hand. Unlike her fellow Rome winner, Daniil Medvedev, she’s unlikely to get into a philosophical battle with the whole idea of playing on clay. Today she had no trouble keeping her composure during long games and putting errors behind her.

How far can this third member of the WTA’s nascent Big 3 go in Paris? Nest up, she’ll get a test from a more traditional clay grinder, Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain.

“I think that I can play good,” Rybakina says. “Just with experience over the years and matches I can get just better and better.”