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Winning Ugly: How Elena Rybakina is finding Plans A, B and C en route to a possible Sunshine Double
The soft-spoken Kazakh stands two wins away from backing up her Indian Wells title with another in South Florida.
Published Mar 29, 2023
WATCH: Elena Rybakina defeats Martina Trevisan in the 2023 Miami Open quarterfinals
MIAMI, Fla.—With just four days separating her victory in the BNP Paribas Open final and her opening match at the Miami Open, Elena Rybakina wasn’t thinking about the Sunshine Double when she arrived in South Florida. She was simply focused on getting through the opening rounds, after being taken to three sets by Anna Kalinskaya, and then facing match points against No. 21 seed Paula Badosa in her second match (third round)
But across four matches in Miami—and 10 consecutive match wins overall (12, if you don't count a walkover in Dubai)—the reigning Wimbledon winner has found a level that only the game’s great champions can access at will: The ability to win ugly.
“It's not only physically, but also kind of [having more] experience,” Rybakina told press in Miami, “because even being not fresh, you still need to push yourself to find these moments in the match where it can turn around, which is not easy to always to do, but I think for now I'm managing.”
Winning "ugly" is hardly a slight on Rybakina's play. She's been frank all week long about her struggles to adapt to the hot and humid conditions, and equally honest about the fatigue that she’s been battling amid a hectic start to the season.
But while she will be the first to admit that her movement in Miami is not as explosive as it was in Indian Wells, and that her usually clean, crisp tennis has been scratchy at times, the 23-year-old has so far problem-solved her way out of trouble—and played her way back into form with every victory.
Case in point, on Wednesday afternoon in Rybakina's quarterfinal match with No. 25 seed Martina Trevisan: her first-serve percentage didn’t crack 60 percent—that number has been hovering in the mid-50s all week—but she still fired 10 aces and was broken only once. She took advantage of Miami’s livelier hard courts to boost her biggest weapon for a 6-3, 6-0 victory.
“I'm trying to go for more, but I think here after the bounce the ball is a bit faster. That's why I can get maybe more free points,” Rybakina explained. “Still, I would say that it's kind of returnable, but yeah, a bit faster than in Indian Wells.”
And the match stats agree, as Rybakina has been hitting more aces overall this week: She tallied 39 across two weeks in Indian Wells, and has already racked up 46 so far in Miami.
“Even today I didn't serve that well, the percentage of the first serve, but in these important moments like 30-All, 30-40 or something like this, I was serving aces,” she added. “So I think it's just important to find these moments and to push.”
Now, the soft-spoken Kazakh stands two wins away from an elusive Sunshine Double—winning the Indian Wells and Miami titles in the same year—a feat that only 11 players have ever accomplished, and just four women.
The Australian Open finalist is looking to join the ranks of Steffi Graf (1994, 1996), Kim Clijsters (2005), Victoria Azarenka (2016) and Iga Swiatek (2022)—but after her grueling fortnight in Miami, watching Rybakina learn to play her way into form at important tournaments feels like a triumph in itself.
“For sure I don't have any pressure. I know that [the Sunshine Double] is very difficult and not many players did it. Plus, I was match point down the other match, so I really don't think so far in the draw,” she said. “I just need to focus match by match, and I have a tough opponent [next]. So I think that it doesn't really matter.
“Of course it would be amazing to achieve something like that, but it's still far away.”
No. 10 seed Rybakina will take on No. 3 Jessica Pegula on Thursday for a place in the Miami Open final. She trails the American 0-2 in their head-to-head, including a 6-3, 6-4 defeat at this tournament last year.