ELENA RYBAKINA with The Venus Rosewater Dish after defeating Ons Jabeur in The Final of the Ladies’ Singles on day 13 of the 2022 Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon. — REUTERS
LONDON — Elena Rybakina was considered surplus to requirements by the Russian tennis federation in 2018, but after she won Wimbledon representing Kazakhstan on Saturday, they might be regretting allowing her to slip through the net.
The big-serving 23-year-old, who was born in Moscow and reportedly still lives there, could never have known when making the switch to Kazakhstan on financial grounds that Russian and Belarussian players would be banned from Wimbledon in 2022.
But the change of flag meant she was free to compete and she cashed in spectacularly to claim the women’s title with an ice-cool comeback win against favorite Ons Jabeur — becoming the first player representing Kazakhstan to win a Grand slam title.
There was an almost apologetic air about Rybakina after becoming the youngest women’s champion since 2011 — a smile barely discernible as she walked to the net after converting her first match point for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win.
She was more expressive later as she held the trophy aloft, making a point to thank the support of long-standing Kazakhstan Tennis Federation president Bulat Utemuratov, the billionaire who cheered her victory on Centre Court.
While cynics will suggest that her victory will give Russia some bragging rights, the poise with which she carried herself throughout the fortnight despite some probing questions about her origins was admirable.
Rybakina was wholesome in her praise of Tunisian trailblazer Jabeur, who she described as an inspiration, and thanked the Duchess of Cambridge after receiving the trophy from the British royal.
“She said that I played really well. I was in shock so maybe half I didn’t hear. I’m very sorry. But for sure she was super nice. It was amazing to get the trophy from her,” Rybakina said.
The tears did eventually flow though as the enormity of what she had achieved began to sink in. Asked in her news conference when she would see her parents, who were not present on Saturday, Rybakina teared up.
“You wanted to see emotion,” she said. “I kept it too long. Probably, they’re going to be super proud.”
Inevitably, questions about her Russian heritage returned on Saturday in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine in February, which Moscow calls a “special operation,” but Rybakina stuck to the line she has taken throughout.
“From my side, I can only say that I’m representing Kazakhstan. I didn’t choose where I was born,” she said. “People believed in me. Kazakhstan supported me so much.”
Rybakina, who struck 144 winners on the way to the final and 29 more on Saturday, said her “big weapon” the serve had helped her recover after a nervous first set.
“It didn’t work out for the whole first set. I was just thinking that I need these big serves right now because if not, it’s going to be very tough,” she said. — Reuters