As we reveal this year's edition of The 21 & Under Club, we'd like to call your attention to Team Luke Hope for Minds, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that supports families with children who have suffered an acquired brain injury. Headed by former Texas Tech tennis coach Tim Siegel—whose son, Luke, suffered severe head and chest trauma from a golf cart accident which resulted in an anoxic brain injury—Team Luke Hope for Minds has lost numerous fundraising opportunities throughout 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To learn more about the organization, and for information on how to donate, go to teamlukehopeforminds.org
WTA Rank: No. 17
UTR Rank: No. 12
What she's done since last summer: Since July 2019, has contested six WTA finals, including four this year to open the 2020 season with a 21-4 mark (won Bucharest in July 2019 as world No. 106 and Hobart in January 2020 as world No 30)
As 20-year-old Elena Rybakina tore through the Dubai draw in February, besting the likes of recent Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova en route to the final, it was clear the 6-footer from Kazakhstan had a big future on the WTA tour.
What wasn’t clear? If she had just won a point, or lost it. With her staid poker face, Rybakina might be the game’s most stoic personality since the great Steffi Graf.
“She never doubts herself and is so laid back,” says Annabel Croft, the former British No. 1 and commentator who covered Rybakina’s matches in Dubai. “She never ever looks stressed, which I think gets under the skin of a lot of opponents because they can’t read her body language. She’s an intelligent match player.”
What Rybakina does is outmatch opponents with blistering power, stealth movement and the kind of mentality that could only be possessed by someone who had won 19 of 22 matches earlier this season.
Her cool approach to stunning Kenin in the American’s first tour-level match after her Grand Slam triumph: “I believed. I didn’t think about [her winning the Australian Open] … I [wasn’t] nervous at all.”
Rybakina's pair of Top 10 victories in Dubai propelled her to a new career-high ranking of No. 17. (Getty Images)
Born in Moscow, Rybakina now represents Kazakhstan and used 2019 as her professional launching pad, skyrocketing from No. 182 to inside the Top 40. When the tour went on hiatus, she was ranked a career-high No. 17. For Croft, it’s Rybakina’s serve that caught her eye more than anything.
“I’m a big fan. I think she’s going to go far,” says Croft. “She has the most amazing, stunning serve. Beautiful rhythm and timing, and an effortless swing. She’s had so many match wins in such a short amount of time agains, stunning serve. Beautiful rhythm and timing, and an effortless swing. She’s had so many match wins in such a short amount of time against high-quality opponents, which builds huge amounts of confidence at an early age. She’s the full package.”
Aside from Kenin, you could argue no one had a hotter start to the truncated tennis season than Rybakina. She made the final in Shenzhen, won Hobart, finished runner-up to Kiki Bertens in St. Petersburg and made her aforementioned run in Dubai, where she and Simona Halep played an instant classic, the Romanian winning in a third-set tiebreak.
“She’s strong,” Halep said of Rybakina. “She has a huge serve. She’s tall. She has power. I think she’s really good ... Top 10 very soon.”
Rybakina says she owes her breakthrough to a new coach, Stefano Vukov, and an elongated pre-season, where she got in six weeks of training. Vukov said he’s learned how to motivate his charge to get the best out of her, amidst a veil of on-court calm.
“I know what buttons to touch to get her going in some moments of the match,” he told the WTA website.
Whatever Team Rybakina is doing, it’s working. Just hide your surprised expression the next time she makes a deep run. Because you know Elena herself won’t be surprised at all—or at least, we won’t be able to tell.
The Class of 2020 is now on TENNIS.com and Baseline.
Monday, July 27: Sofia Kenin | Monday, July 27: Elena Rybakina | Monday, July 27: Alex de Minaur, Dayana Yastremska, Casper Ruud | Tuesday, July 28: Stefanos Tsitsipas | Tuesday, July 28: Thiago Seyboth Wild | Wednesday, July 29: Amanda Anisimova | Wednesday, July 29: Brandon Nakashima | Thursday, July 30: Coco Gauff | Thursday, July 30: Caty McNally | Thursday, July 30: Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek | Friday, July 31: Felix Auger-Aliassime | Friday, July 31: Carlos Alcaraz | Saturday, August 1: Denis Shapovalov | Saturday, August 1: J.J. Wolf | Sunday, August 2: Bianca Andreescu | Sunday, August 2: Leylah Fernandez | Sunday, August 2: Marketa Vondrousova, Miomir Kecmanovic